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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A leopard always contours

Well, this is strange. It's not often that I feel underdressed at the theatre. Speaking as someone who once wore a dinosaur print sweatshirt to a black tie gala at the Royal Opera House, I'm usually quite content, bar the odd attempt at theme dressing, to rock up in whatever I'm wearing that day.

But here I am, with 116 theatre trips under my patent-leather belt this year alone, and I am feeling distinctly awkward about my appearance.

I'm standing in the long box office queue underneath the weighty canopy of the Savoy hotel, and it's there. That skittish, itchy feeling that comes when you realise just how out of place you are.

And I am severely underdressed. I see that now. Everywhere around me, ladies are in full glam: false lashes, their cheekbones contoured into diamond-cut angles, and displaying a safari park's worth of leopard print. My go-to look of the moment: grungy t-shirt and vintage men's 49er jacket, just isn't cutting it amongst this flock of exotic-looking creatures.

We shuffle our way forwards, as massive cars slide their way off the Strand, slipping their way under the canopy to deposit their passengers at the front door of the hotel. Men in top hats and tails run forward to open doors for them.

A lady in ATG livery shouts at us. The queue is just for ticket pick up. If we have a ticket, we're to go straight in. There's a catch in her throat, as if she's minutes away from losing her voice.

Eventually, I make it inside the great golden doors of the theatre. The box office has little ornate hatches set into the wall, like an old fashioned movie theatre. Not surprising at this place is a palace of art deco. Sham art-deco, as the place was (re)built in the nineties, but still. There's some serious thirties-glam going on all the same. The foyer is painted silver. The box office counters are gold. And the queuing is lifted straight from the great depression.

These tiny box office windows always make me think of the Bocca della Verità in Italy. The Mouth of Truth. A huge stone mask with a gaping hole for a mouth. As Gregory Peck explains to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, "the legend is, if you are given to lying, and put your hand in there, it will be bitten off."

Thankfully, I don't have to give a false name today, and my hand returns unscathed and holding a ticket.

I turn around to head inside, but their's a rope blocking my path. I have to go back outside in order to get inside the theatre.

If anything, the queue as got even larger. All the doors are blocked by people pressing forward. Everyone managing to block everyone else. A perfect storm of leopard print.

One of the Savoy top hats comes over to talk to the ATG lady.

"You need to move them," he says. "The cars can't get through."

ATG lady raises her voice, ordering us to move off the road. But there's nowhere for us to go to. The queue is three doors wide and ten people deep, and growing all the time.

"Let's just go in here," says a group of four women in leopard print as they come out the box office. They aim for the tiny sliver of space in front of me and elbow their way in.

"The car can't move," persists the top hot.

ATG lady doesn't look at him. She knows about the damn car. But she also knows that fifty people are considerably harder to move than a single car.

Gradually, I'm jostled towards the door, and I stumble through, coming to a halt just in front of the bag-checker.

He looks inside, and then takes hold of the bottom, giving it a good feel.

A really good feel. He's not letting go. I can see his hands curling around something through the fabric.

Something long and cylindrical.

"It's my umbrella," I explain.

He let's go and I'm waved in towards the next person in this entrance procedure.

"Three floors down," says the ticket checker, glancing at my ticket.

I'm in the stalls tonight. A fancy seat for a fancy theatre.

The stairs are painted yellow. With big green circles clustered in corners as if the walls have developed some sort of fungal growth.

Okay. Not that fancy then.

It takes me the full three-floor descent to realise the green circles are meant to be grapes.

It's a relief to step into the auditorium and be back into the world of towering silver walls and upholstered art deco. The seat numbers are stitched into diamonds shapes on the seats and even the fire exit sign has its own extravengent frame to sit within. But this is all background detail to what is going on up on the stage.

A fuck-off massive 9 to 5 sign, complete with LED screen, light up lettering, and enough glitter to take a Liberace tribute act on world tour.

Two young women come and sit next to me. They're not wearing leopard print, but they make up for it by each having two drinks. A glass of wine. And a cocktail. They have to take it in turns to get into their chairs as the drinks mean they don't have any hands free to go about the business of taking off their jackets and flipping down the seats.

"Are we allowed to take photos?" one asks.

"No!" cries the other, scandalised.

"Oh, I just wanted a selfie with the 9 to 5..."

"Oh, that's fine. I thought you meant during the show."

"Nah. Just a selfie with the 9 to 5."

"Not during the show?"

"No, now."

"They don't let you take photos during the show."

"But it's fine now?"

"Yeah, it's fine now."

That settled, they take selfies together. They're having a great time.

I should have brought a cocktail. And a friend. This is totally the wrong show to be going to solo. And sober.

The face of the alarm clock in the 9 to 5 transforms into Dolly Parton's face, and we are treated to an intro from the country queen.

The audience cheers. And drinks.

As the show progresses, the drinkers become drunker, and the non-drinkers grow ever restless.

A woman in the row in front turns around to glare at my neighbours. They've been chattering a good deal.

They don't notice the glare. And continue their conversation.

By the second act, most of the audience is properly drunk.

The glaring lady has resorted to adding a new manoeuvre to her repertoire of admonishments - a finger raised to pursed lips.

The young women giggle in reply.

"Shh!" one hushes sarcastically in reply.

I now know why the front of house areas are painted with grapes.

"Someone's in our seats," says one of the leopard-print ladies, holding a fish-bowl full of some pink-coloured concoction. She pouts. Actually pouts. Her lower lip jutting out to show her distress as she waves towards the filled-seats.

"Mum, you're in the wrong row..."

The glarers have multiplied, and are on full tutting duty for the second act.

But even an army of glarers isn't enough to interrupt that good time being had by a leopard-lady in the front row.

She sways in her seat, almost in time with the music, claps along to the beat in her heart, and cheers every time one of the trio of 9-to-5ers on stage gets one over the MAN.

But when she turns around in her seat to talk excitedly to the person behind her, it gets too much for the glarers.

Across the stalls I spot an usher rushing down the opposite aisle. She pauses by the doorway and stands on tip-toe to get a good look at our leopard-lady.

Someone must have tattled.

A few minutes later, a different usher comes rushing down the nearest aisle, wearing the expression of someone who has just drawn the short straw.

She crouches down next to leopard-lady and whispers something.

Leopard-lady nods. She gets it. She'll be quiet.

The usher smiles gratefully and retreats.

Job done.

Well, almost.

Leopard-lady gets up from her seat, swinging her handbag over her shoulder, she heads for the exit.

The whispering usher chases after her.

There's nothing through that door but the way out.

A minute later and leopard-lady is back, in her seat, and clapping away.

No one tries to stop her fun this time.

As the cast finish their curtain calls, she waves each of the trio off stage. And they wave back.

Aww.

Someone really needs to set her up with the mayor of Hornchurch. Something tells me they'd get on just fabulously.

In the meantime, perhaps she can teach me how to contour...

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Too sick to think of a title...

It isn't often that I genuinely worry that I'll run out of District Line before getting to my destination, but we're really pushing its limits here. I'm so far down the line, there was some genuine debate as to whether this theatre even counted as a London one. There was some serious concern from certain parties that I might actually be heading towards, wait for it, Essex.

But as per the rules of the marathon, if I can get there on my Oyster card, then it qualifies for the marathon. I here I am, stepping onto the platform at Hornchurch station, just a short walk from the next theatre on my list: Queen's Theatre.

One of the unexpected thrills of heading this far out is not quite knowing what you're going to find out here.

I mean, when you're going to the West End, you kinda know what to expect. An old Edwardian building stuck together with gold and velvet. Pub theatres are all black boxes and faerie lights. Fringe theatres are coloured lights and mismatched furniture. But the further I out I go, the less geographical knowledge I have on which to hook my expectations.

Would the Queen's Theatre be a converted church? A reformed synagogue? A born-again basilica? A doctored hospital? A reworked workhouse? A metamorphosed butterfly house? A remodelled model village? It could be anything!

As I walk down North Street, I peer at all the signs trying to work out which building it could be. I spy a church coming up. There's a large sign out front. "Dream big. Pray bigger!" it says in big round letters. Was that it? It isn’t. It can’t be. I’m on the wrong side of the road.

It should be somewhere on the left, according to Google Maps.

A couple strolling ahead of me turn left into a park. I follow them. They look like the sort who might enjoy a good musical.

And there, across the wide expanse of grass is a building that looks like it has been lifted straight from some college campus. The kind where you can imagine cool young people swarming about clutching textbooks larger than themselves. Or perhaps rushing up the stairs, their massive portfolio cases smashing against their knees with every step.

Was this it?

I squint my eyes against the last of the day’s sun, but I’m not wearing my glasses and I can’t make out what the sign says. But that brick monolith jutting out the back looks like it could be a fly tower.

The path gently curves, leading me to the front of the building.

There’s a wide staircase out front made up of floating steps, and a large sign stuck on the side of the building in huge orange letters. I have reached Queen’s Theatre it seems, and even better, returned to the seventies once more - or at least, before apostrophes were invented, as the sign seems to be distinctly lacking in the punctuation department.

I wonder whether this was a mistake of the sign-makers, or part of some grand drive towards inclusivity. I’m not sure which is worse. Of course, it could be something truly dreadful, like me having spent the entirety of this post writing Queen’s when in fact the theatre was named for multiple majesties. This is not something that I am prepared to check, so we must all agree, right here and now, that it is the sign that is at fault. And not me.

There’s another sign next to the first. Smaller and considerably less orange. “Supported by the London Borough of Havering,” it reads. Phew.

Despite the proximity to the punctuation-lacking sign, I decide to put my faith entirely in the second one. We were still in London. And not Essex. The sign says so. Let that be an end to such discussion.

That settled, I go up the stairs, keeping to the edge of the railing just in case any students come flying down the steps, their portfolios flapping in the breeze, and head inside to pick up my ticket.

Oh, oh my… look at this.

It says the name of my blog. On the ticket.

Just above the title of the show: The Hired Man.

Fucking hell.

I can’t stop staring at it.

I’m stumbling around, not knowing where I’m going and I don’t even care.

There are press drinks downstairs, but what care I for wine when my ticket has London Theatre Marathon printed across the top.

This is it. This is the big time.

I’m going to need to frame this sucker when I get home.

I quickly put it in my pocket before I fall down the stairs. I may not be overly fussed by the prospect of press drinks, but I also don’t want to fall flat on my arse in front of the good people of Hornchurch. I spy someone wearing a gold coin down there. One of the big fancy ones that sits on the shoulders. The sort of mayor wears. Does Hornchurch have a mayor? Well, if it does, he’s in the building and guilded up.

I make it down the stairs in one piece and start inching myself through the crowd. I bypass the wine. I shouldn’t be having it anyway. I’m actually stupidly ill and on antibiotics right now. But there is something far more interesting lurking against the wall. A table absolutely heaving with food. There are sausage rolls. And sandwiches. And wraps. And no where on the patient information leaflet for my pills does it say that I can’t mix penicillin with sausage rolls, or sandwiches, or wraps. I mean… I haven’t actually read it. But I fairly certain that it doesn’t all the same.

I grab a few and tuck in, not even caring if the mayor of Hornchurch sees me with pastry crumbs all down my front. I brush the off.

But then, just as I take a bit and shower a fresh set of crumbs all down my top, I spot someone.

Someone I recognise.

Someone very rapidly walking away from me.

I stumble after him, running up the steps, not even caring that I’m covered in the remanence of two sausage rolls.

“Ian!”

It’s Ian. He’s quite a famous blogger, as it happens. But for the sake of anonymity, let’s just call him Ian.

“Did you get your blog name printed on your ticket?” I ask, diving straight into the important question.

He shows me his ticket. It has his blog name printed across the top. I won’t tell you what it says, but I’m sure you’ve already cracked my code of secrecy.

“Have you tried the sausage rolls?” That’s my follow up question. Never let it be said that I’m not a brilliant conversationalist.

“Oh, I don’t go down there,” he says, waving at the press drinks pit dismissively. “With all the young people.”

“It wasn’t like this back with my old blog. No chance of ever getting a press ticket. And never any sausage rolls. How times change.”

Oh yeah, I’m not sure if I ever mentioned I used to be a theatre blogger in my twenties. I mean a real one. Who wrote real reviews. Well, kind of real reviews. Not diary entries of my theatre trips. I was a catty cow though. How times change, eh?

“Where are you sitting?” I ask.

Turns out he’s sitting next to me. I grin as I show him my ticket.

“Oh fuck off,” he says, reeling back.

I think he’s joking.

Oh well. Time to go in.

Even given the campus-like proportions outside, I’m still surprised by how large it is in here. Not so much a case of “bigger on the inside,” but “bigger than I expected, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. Did I mention the fact that I am very, very ill? Because I am very, very ill, and I am blaming that for my lack of ability to estimate space based on relative sizing of available reference points.”

There’s a great big stage, and what looks like, if my poor tired eyes aren’t seeing things, a revolve sat on top of it.

I fucking love a revolve.

I am well excited.

“Did you choose to come to this, or were you just invited?” I ask Ian.

“I chose. It’s one of my favourite musicals.”

Blimey. That’s quite the statement.

I chose to see this one too. I do like a good musical. And with the marketing copy proudly proclaiming The Hired Man as “The best British musical in 40 years,” well, Hornchurch didn’t need to tempt my with the prospect of sausage rolls to get me on the train, that’s all I’m saying.

I take a few photos from my seat.

“No photography inside the auditorium,” says Ian, pointing at an image of a camera with a red line through it.

I take a photo of the sign.

The show starts.

Huh. This is not what I was expecting.

For a start, I thought there might be a story of some sort. But instead all we’re getting is a lot of songs about work. “Bitter work.”

There is even a song called Work.

Perhaps I should have expected this. The title is, after all, The Hired Man. But, as I may have mentioned, I’ve been very, very ill.

In the interval, I tentatively ask Ian if anything will actually happen in this musical.

“Well, there’s the first world war…”

“Yeah, but that’s not exactly a plot point, is it?”

He shrugs good-naturedly. He’s happy. He’s watching one of his favourite musicals after all.

I’m fairly happy too. There are scones on offer in the pit, and I’m busy making a mess of myself scoffing on them while I try to make sense of the first act.

Plus, the sight of XXX dragging his cello around the stage before patting its curves as the instrument plays the role of his pet dog is a charming memory that is lingering pleasantly. Although, I do think there should be a limit imposed on the talents displayed by performers in a single performance. Acting? Fine. Singing? Definitely. Acting, and singing, and also playing a musical instrument? A little much. But if it leads to scenes of cello-patting and clarinets being brandished in the same way as a villager might brandish their rake before storming the castle… well, I can get on board with that. But acting and singing and playing multiple instruments?

Watching them jump off the revolve in order to take a seat behind one of the two pianos, bang out a tune, and then rush back to join in with a new song is breath-taking in itself.

And despite all the enforced northern grimness, it’s very pretty. From XXX long skirts to XXX natty green jacket, and all those tasty XXX on the men. The music too. I guess. Folky and earnest. And yes, pretty. Even so, it’s not going to be knocking Six off my “Musical Bangers to Write Copy To” Spotify playlist anytime soon.

Because that’s it, isn’t it? It’s not a banger. It’s an intimate, sweet show. Too small and gentle for a theatre as large as Queen’s. In row H, I might as well have been sitting in the back row for the remoteness I felt from the characters. This is a musical that belongs above a pub.

But I’ll tell you who disagrees.

The blooming mayor of Hornchurch.

He jumps to his feet, turning round and waving with his hands as he tries to provoke a standing ovation from the rest of us.

I like his style. And not just because of his fabulous jewellery.

“Going back for seconds?” jokes Ian as we make our way out, and he spots me glancing into the pit.

I decline. It’s a long way home, and I still have to haul myself all the way back to the station. And I am very, very ill.

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Bells and Whistles

There are some theatres that it is just plain shameful to admit not having visited. You can be a dedicated theatre-goer and not have gone to say… the Lyric (it could almost be argued that a true fan of theatre would not, in fact, have ventured anywhere near the Lyric), but can you imagine saying the same thing about the Royal Court? Or the Young Vic? I would class the Finborough Theatre in that category. Being a regular theatre-goer in London, going to the Finborough is pretty much essential. Not going is like… I don’t know, never having seen Hamlet. it’s such an essential component that it is almost qualifying feature. Can you honestly say you’re into theatre if you haven’t? I mean, really, it’s practically shameful.

Which is why I will never admit to not having been there. Because I absolutely have been there. Now.

I’m downstairs in the pub, waiting in the queue for the box office, which is a small desk towards the back of the bar. I can’t help but admire the t-shirts being worn by the two young people sitting behind it. They are grey marl, with the theatre’s red and black logo printed across the front, and so ugly that they must be deeply cool.

As one rifles through the tickets in search of mine, the other gives me the speech.

“The house is now open,” in the unhurried but practised tones of someone who has said this at least a thousand times before. “If you take up a drink it needs to be in a plastic cup. The loos are downstairs, the theatre is upstairs. And programmes are three pounds.”

Well, that’s everything of importance covered in four sentences.

I decide to avoid the business of the bar and head upstairs. While my ticket may have my name scrawled across the top, the seats are unallocated and I want to bag a good one.

There’s a door just opposite the box office desk. “Toilets & Theatre this way” reads the sign painted over it. I can’t help but smile at the priority given to those to things.

Despite the old school pub vibes of the building itself, the pub downstairs had that clean modern look that I imagine pubs in Scandinavia might have. All white walls, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork. The staircase that would lead me up to the theatre comes as a bit surprise. Red walls. Red balustrades. Photos and flyers are cramped into every available space. This is what the inside the head of a theatrically inclined serial killer must look like.

At the top of the stairs, there’s another cool young person waiting, in one of those grey marl t-shirts. She takes my ticket a rips a tiny tear into the top.

“There's no remittance,” she says, handing my ticket back. “But there is a fifteen-minute interval. Also, there's five people to a bench.”

I look at the benches. Blimey. Five people. That seems a little ambitious. Looks like I’m set for a very cosy evening.

I slide myself to the end of the second row. I don’t want to have to be squeezed up by any latecomers. Plus, there’s a nice gap between me and the wall. Perfect bag-dumping ground.

“Mind if I just put my bag down there?” asks a man in the front row, already heaving his bag over the back of his seat.

I shift mine out of the way.

“I'll put my coat there too,” he says, squashing down his massive puffer into a neat parcel which expands to fill the entire space as soon as he lets it go.

Two people join my row. That’s four of us now.

My new neighbour gets out a notebook and pen. You know what that means, right? Yup. It’s time to play another round of Blogger or Director! My favourite game.

She writes the title of the show: Maggie May. Then underlines it.

Blogger.

That was a short round.

More people are pouring in. Everyone begins shuffling about.

Two men appear. They want to sit together, but there isn’t enough space. They split up. One taking a spare slot on the second row, and then other climbing up to join us in the second.

My neighbour the blogger tries to get me to move along, but there isn’t anywhere left for me to go. “I’m already right at the end,” I say apologetically, but I wriggle over a fraction, just to show willing.

It wasn’t enough.

As the performance started, my new blogger friend did her very best to introduce her elbow to my ribs, constantly jabbing and poking and moving until I almost considered taking a seat on the floor alongside the collection of coats and bags.

You’d think someone who writes about theatre would have learnt how to roll her shoulders in. I just hope her review is worth the irritation.

Bloggers, ey? Who’d have ‘em.

The audience aren’t the only ones having to watch where they put their elbows.

I made a comment in by post about The Bunker, that they could have pushed in fifteen performers onto that stage if they’d had a mind to. But the Finborough went and did it. On a stage the size of my front room, they managed to fit dock workers, policemen, sex workers, a staircase, and a piano.

At one point I counted thirteen actors on stage, all singing and dancing. And that’s not even counting the pianist who was providing all the live music for the evening.

So rambunctious was one dance, Natalie Williams’ Maureen O’Neill’s earring went flying, skittering off out of sight underneath the staircase, and had to be retrieved by one of the blokes, who slipped it into his pocket. The next time Williams appeared on stage, she had both earrings once more and a cracking good line. “That’s disgusting,” she says in her thick Liverpudlian accent as Maggie May admits her love for the firebrand Patrick Casey.

I can’t help but agree.

I don’t know why this musical is called Maggie May, because although it follows her around, it isn’t her story. I anything, it’s about her love interest, Casey. A man she’s been obsessed with her entire adult life, even going so far as to call all her clients: Casey. Without him, she doesn’t seem to have any direction or purpose. She drifts from man to man, waiting for Casey to return, waiting for Casey to take her out, waiting for Casey to fall in love with her, waiting for Casey to finish campaign against the men in suits. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Forever waiting.

In the interval, half the audience tramp down to the bar and those that remain are left with the sound of gulls to keep us company. I get out the programme and have a good read, noticing with delight that the company had rehearsed in the Lantern Arts Centre, which was where I was last night.

 A loud bell stops my reading. At first I thought it the theatre bell, calling the audience back up from the pub, but as it goes on and on, I begin to wonder…

“Is that the fire alarm?” someone in the opposite bank of seats asks.

No-one replies but we’re all looking around now.

The air above the stage-space looks curiously smokey.

“Are you sure it’s not the fire alarm?” comes another voice, sounding more concerned now.

The bell is still ringing.

I look at the door, fully expecting an usher to burst in and tell us to get our arses out of there. But the doorway remains usher-free.

Is this it? Am I going to die in here? I’m feeling very calm for someone who is about to expire from smoke inhalation. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m going to be a theatre ghost, and I’m not made about my soul being trapped in the Finborough. I think I could do good work here. Not sure about my outfit though. I do like this skirt, but I’m not convinced it’s something I want to be stuck in for all eternity. Oh well, too late now to change, I’ll just have to…

The bell stops ringing.

Oh.

Maggie May should have been left in the sixties, where it belonged, but the Finborough… well, it’s gear.

Fenian king  

The cast beat most of the audience

From flat caps to white t-shirts and levis

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100 x 100

It’s the hundredth day of the year and I’m off to visit my one hundredth theatre of the marathon. That’s a nice little bit of synchronicity that happened quite by chance. With days when I’ve seen nothing at all, and others where I’ve rushed around from one venue to the next, reaching the centenary of days in the marathon and the theatres visited in it, at the same time, didn’t seem likely. It's a mini miracle.

Back when I started this journey, all those years ago on the 1 Jan, I had vague plans of doing something when I hit 100 theatres. A brief overview of everywhere I’d been. Crunch the numbers and count up the stats. But here we are, and I haven’t done any of the prep work.

So, let’s just dive in with theatre one hundred, shall we?

I’m on route to the Lantern Arts Centre, which, in case you didn’t know, is in Raynes Park. Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either.

It’s one of those tricky venues that doesn’t have much in the way of programming. The runs are short and far apart. So when something came up that fitted the marathon criteria, I put it in my spreadsheet without too much consideration as to what it was that I was actually booking.

As I sat on the tube, trundling my way down to south London, I looked up the show I was seeing. A Turbulent Priest. Ah. Thomas Beckett. I’m already feeling smug about my historical knowledge, although it extends just far enough to connect the phrase with the name and no further.

The show’s artwork is quite possibly the most terrifying picture I’ve ever seen in my life. Two men, one of them presumably Mr Beckett, locked in a violent embrace, with their tongues hanging out and their necks in choke-holds, all in a style that makes me ponder what would have happened if Goya was ever let loose in a stained glass workshop.

I closed the webpage and read the latest Brexit news on The Guardian. Much less distressing.

Turns out Raynes Park is rather a long way from South Wimbledon station. I good 40 minute trek distance.

It’s a good thing the show started at 8pm.

Actually, I fully approve of 8pm starts full stop. Because 8pm starts mean short shows. And short shows mean that I can still achieve the coveted goal of being home by 10pm, even with an 8pm start. I mean, a 7pm start combined with a 60 minute run time is the ultimate dream, but I suppose if one has to track all the way to Raynes Park in a post-work rush, then 8pm is more than acceptable.

Even with my walk, I rocked up with twenty minutes to spare, giving me plenty of time to walk around admiring the building. It really is rather spectacular. Red brick, with twin turrets that might have gone some way to explaining the name. It does rather have the look of a lantern. No one of those glass camping ones, you understand. But a brass one, covered in latticework that throws pretty patterns all over the walls. The type of lantern that you tell everyone that you found in a Moroccan souk, but probably started its life in a factory in China.

It won’t surprise you to know that most of the building is given over to a church, but turn the corner and you find a small door leading to the arts centre side of the enterprise.

I stop to take more photos. A young woman approaches. She tests the door. It doesn't open. So she rings the bell. Through the window we see a man come running to the door, opening it from the inside. "Hello!" he says cheerfully.

They both disappear.

A minute later, an old lady comes along. She's heading for the Lantern too. The door rattles as she tests the handle. It's not opening. She makes a disapproving noise under her breath.

"So sorry about that," says the man as he opens the door for her.

She goes in and the door closes one more.

I'm done taking my photos, but I don't want to knock on the door and send them man running to open it again. It must be a right pain in the bum having to answer the door for every audience member coming along. I hang around, waiting.

Soon I spot another woman coming down the pavement. She's taking on her phone. "Yes, the bus drops you right outside the building," she says. Looks like we have ourselves another person going to the Lantern tonight.

"Hello!" says the man, all smiles as he opens the door for us, his enthusiasm undiminished by his door duties.

There's a desk in the foyer, and when he returns to his post I give my name.

"The surname is Smiles?"

"Ah! I remember seeing that one," he says as he flips through the envelopes before handing me the one with my name on it. "Have you been here before?"

I admitted I hadn't.

"You need to head around the corner, up the stairs and the theatre is at the far end."

"Round the corner, up the stairs, on the far end," I repeat.

"Or just follow someone else," he says with a smile.

But there's no one else around the corner, so I journey up the stairs by myself. I find a small group standing at the top. They're wavering.

"That looks like it?" says one, indicating the sole open door.

"Yes, just through there," says someone, apparently on stair duty for this exact circumstance.

We go in just through there.

Or true to, anyway.

There's some bottleneck action going on as people gather to examine the merch table. Or at least, I presume its a merch table. I can't get close enough to look. I squeeze myself through, emerging on the other side in a wide room. White walls. A wood pannelled ceiling that looks like it was transported directly from the seventies. Small posters dotted around at intervals advertising dance classes. It looks like a church hall.

It is a church hall.

There's a raised platform on the end. The stage. With rows of chairs lined up in front of it.

Some brave soul is sitting by herself in the front row. She's keen.

I slip into the second row. Slightly less keen.

"With do little seating they could have allowed more legroom," says a man as he too comes to sit in the second row. He's not wrong. The six or so rows of seats have all been bunched up at one end of the hall, leaving a mass of empty space behind us. Good for those who want to sit close to the stage, I suppose, but not so great for those who want to wriggle their toes every so often.

His companion suggests stretching out his legs underneath the seat in front, which must have done the trick because their conversation soon moves onto the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not the Turbulent Priest, you understand. The current bloke. Who, I have just now realised, because I Googled it to check the spelling of his name, is no longer Rowan Williams, and hasn't been since 2012! Wow, I'm really not keeping up with things. Turns out things do occasionally move on in the Christian church.

Needless to say I can't follow the discussion. Something to do with the Pope. Which, and I've already admitted my ignorance of this whole situation, seems to me to be about five hundred years too late.

I drift out of their conversation and move onto the next.

Behind me a couple are also discussing the Arch-bish. The old one. The really old one. Our man Beckett.

I stop listening. I don't want any spoilers for the show.

The lights dim. The sound of monks chanting fills the space.

Two actors make their way up onto the stage, then hide behind a black screen in order to make their entrance.

They are Saint George and Thomas the Apostle. And Beckett. And Henry II. And a hundred other historical figures that I probably did get taught about at school but have no recollection of. They rush back and forth, diving behind the screen to change costumes as they try on new characters, covering for each other with meta asides to the audience and singing songs in between the historical reenactments.

They are doing the absolute most.

I say 'they' and not their names, because I don't know what they are. There was no cast-sheet floating around (admittedly, there may have been one on the merch table... but that was a battle I wasn't willing to fight) and there's no mention of them on the Lantern's website.

Sorry unnamed actors. You sang. You danced. You changed costume. You educated me on medieval English history. And I have no idea who you are.

Wait, hang on… did they say interval? I checked my phone. But we had a 8pm start? What kind of sicko programmes a two-act play with an 8pm start?

Hamilton rap battle between church and state

A hundred shows in a hundred days. I’ve been to see one hundred shows in a hundred days. Not only that, I’ve been to see one hundred shows, in one hundred different theatres, in one hundred days.

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Well Sarki

"What does a free drink mean?" asks someone in the queue at the bar.

Sounds like a stupid question, but it had been one I'd been asking myself.

"I don't know," comes the reply. "They just said a free drink from the bar."

"So, wine? Or like... can I get a double?"

Silence. I could only presume the answer came in the form of a shrug.

I looked up at the menu. There was wine. And beer. Coke in all its variants. Water. And spirits. But no indication of which ones could be requested in exchange for the small drinks token we had been given.

I'm not a wine, or a beer drinker. And I only really go for the fizzy stuff when there's nothing else on offer. As for water, I've got some in my bar. And spirits don't tend to be included in these offers. Should I wait it out to find out?

"Can everyone move to the other side?" calls the man behind the bar. The queue shuffles its way to the other end of the bar.

I go with them.

The queue is long. Really long. And I decide the thing I want, the thing I really want, is to get out of the queue and take some photos of this venue. That's the real reason I'm there after all.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't at the Cutty Sark to find a new drinking hole. I was there to get some ship-action going on. It's not every day you get to wander around beneath the bow of a nineteenth-century clipper.

I think the good folks at Royal Museums Greenwich are fully aware of this, so open the doors a full 45 minutes before the show starts.

I had missed out on this precious wandering time because of my inability to ever judge how long a journey on the DLR will take. I rocked up with only ten minutes to go, and I spent half of them standing outside, gazing in rapture and trying to work out how to possibly take a photo that would capture this ship in all its beauty. Did I want the corner of the pub in the shot to show off the surrealness of seeing a ship there? Or perhaps have the masts stark against the night sky?

Nothing seemed right, and I just had to accept that I am not a photographer and you'll just have to live with that, as I do.

When I came to realise this, there was nothing left to do but go inside, give my name, pick up the drinks token and...

"Can I get one of these?" I asked, indicating the stack of programmes on the desk.

Turns out I absolutely could, because they were absolutely free.

Score.

After that, I was pointed in the direction of a staircase that would take me down, deep into the bowels of the earth, the hull of the ship descending with me.

At first I didn't see it. The theatre. But as the smooth curves of the dark ship fell away from me, I spotted it. The seats first. Rows of them. And then the stage. Small. Nothing more than a backcloth and a platform stuck in front of it. Like one belonging to the travelling players of a forgotten era.

I was there for Pirates of Penzance, which as shows go for watching under the looming shadow of a sailing ship, is pretty unbeatable.

"If it's terrible, we can leave in the interval," says a man sitting behind me.

His companions don't sound so sure about this deal of his,

"Apparently, it's an operetta, not an opera," he soothes. "So hopefully it's not terrible."

The musicians stroll down the big staircase, dressed in full pirate get up. With embroidered waistcoats, tricorner hats and everything.

That gets an audible reaction from the row behind me, and coos of appreciation replace the grumbles of discontent.

A few minutes later, it's the turn of the cast, the ladies wrestling with large skirts as they make their way down the endless steps and cross the huge space towards the stage.

It's my second Pirates of the year. When I started out on this marathon, I never considered this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, would be the one to steal the Most Viewed category. I figured that honour would go to some Shakespeare or other, but here we are, serving up those corny Cornish Pirates, and I've loving every minute of it. And where Wilton's was all boys in skirts, this version has meta staging and operatic trills. Because while Pirates may be an operetta, and not an opera, the company performing it, The Merry Opera, are, as the name implies, of the opera, and not the operetta, variety.

When the cast hurried back up to the stairs for the interval, in a manner which must be doing wonders for their cardiovascular fitness, the audience headed to the bar.

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

Abandoning the queue, I roamed the full length of the ship up towards the viewing platform, from where you get a real sense of the scale of the thing, with all the people below scurrying about like little insects.

But what really drew my attention, was what lay below. A chorus of figureheads, bursting out of their display like a battalion of avenging angels. Even the most cherubically cheeked among them rendered demonic by the shadows cast by their companions.

I took a few photos, but their sinister glares get the best of me and chased me back to my seat.

The free drinks must have done the trick because the audience was noticeably more excited than I had left them.

To be honest, I'd been a little concerned about the lack of humming among the older male contingent. When the good ship G&S doesn't bring about some humming among the audience, you know something's gone wrong. But I neededn't of worried. A few rival hummers started from opposing rows in what I can only describe as a hum-off. But before a winner could be declared, they were both blasted out of the competition by a woman letting out a shrill peal of opera-warbles.

"Wow," says her neighbour, sounding a little unsure about the whole thing.

Taking this as encouragement, she does it again. And again. But the repetition does nothing to widen her repertoire. It's always the same couple of notes, repeated in impressively parrot-like fashion.

People are starting to look around. But this newly acquired audience only encourage her.

Just as I wonder whether I should applaud, the band reappear.

We were ready to start the second act.

Dastardly deeds and even worse word-play follows. True love triumphs. The Major General out-raps the cast of Hamilton when he goes double-speed. Pirates are marked out as the very naughty children they are. Everyone gets a touch sentimentally patriotic. And I get my fix of boys in eyeliner.

Bliss.

Oh, and the man who thought that offered his group the opportunity to leave in the interval? Yeah, they came back for act two. I guess operettas aren't necessarily terrible after all.

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Divorced, Beheaded, Fried

“Meet you by Agatha Christie?”

I’ve always wanted to be the person who says things like that. Well, ever since I read I Capture the Castle and fell in love with Topaz Mortain when she describes the British Museum as a place where "people do nothing but use it for assignations - I met him there myself once.”

My attempt at my own literary assignation is soon thwarted by Nicki’s look of confusion. “Where is that again?”

“It’s near the noodle shop. If you walk down the road towards Five Guys.”

 “Ah!” She nods. “Next to the crossing. I know where that is.”

Somehow, this was all starting to lose the sense of romance I was going for.

We were going to see Six that night. Something we were both very excited about. So excited, even a battle with the TodayTix app for day seats that morning hadn’t managed to dampen our spirits. In our pursuit of cheap, or at least cheaper tickets, we’d both been poised on our respective phones, to hit that button at 10am on the dot.

But it seems we weren’t the only people who wanted to see this hit show on a random Tuesday evening and were we made to wait while other, luckier, app users made tea, tried to find a date, or otherwise occupied their time, with unbought tickets sitting in their basket.

Eventually, a few single tickets crept back up for sale. I grabbed one. I tried to buy another but the app wasn’t having it. No multiple purchases for a single performance. Even if you only wanted the two tickets.

I ran over to Nicki’s desk. She was on a work call. There was no time for that. I grabbed her mobile and directed her through the medium of waving it in front of her face that she needed to unlock it. She did. App opened, I clicked the checkout button. Success! Single ticket in the basket and only a few seats down from the one I had bought.

After that, it was only a matter of finding somewhere to meet that evening.

Enter Agatha Christie.

Or at least her memorial on the intersection between Cranbourn and Great Newport streets.

Shaped like a massive book, it’s perfect for leaning against and getting in the way of tourists’ photos.

“Shall we get our tickets first?” I asked when Nicki appears at my elbow.

We dart across the road to the Arts Theatre and push our way through the packed bar.

“Is this the queue?” we ask people in general.

A man shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says before turning his back. Guess that’s a no then.

Nicki gets out her phone, but the app isn’t necessary. We are on surname terms here.

Nicki gets her ticket, then the bloke on box office hands one to me.

I frown at it. Right seat number. It has my name on it and everything.

“How…?” I start. “Did you give him my name?” I ask Nicki.

“Of course!” she says, surprised that I hadn’t noticed.

Oh dear.

I stuffed the problematic ticket into my bag.

“Food?”

We went to Five Guys. Might as well.

“Shall we share a milkshake?” asks Nicki as we stand in the queue.

“No!” I exclaim, horrified. I’m a grown woman. I can buy my own damn milkshakes.

“Max, I’m going to force intimacy on you if it’s the last thing I do. We’re sharing a milkshake.”

I opened my mouth, ready to let forth a very articulate refusal that would leave poor Nicki quaking in her shoes, but after one look at her face I shut it again.

We shared a milkshake.

“Shit, it’s five to,” I say, catching a glimpse of my phone.

We scramble for our coats. Nicki puts her leftover fries in her bag. I grab the milkshake.

“Shit, they’ve all gone in,” I say as we reach the Arts. The foyer is completely empty.

A man opening the door quickly steps to one side to let us through, terror in his eyes.

“Thank you!” I shout over my shoulder, as we run across the foyer towards the auditorium entrance. “Can we take this in?” I ask, holding up the milkshake.

“Thank you,” I say at the same time as he says: “Err…”

No time to stop to take photos or even buy a programme. We aimed straight for our seats.

Our separated seats.

Oh. I had forgotten about that.

The man sitting next to me stood up to let Nicki pass.

“Sorry,” I say. “Do you think it would be possible to move down a couple of seats…” I let me request trail off.

“No.”

“Oh.”

I mean, fair does. He was under no obligation to move because some pair of woman, who arrive seconds before curtain up, can’t get their act together enough to buy two seats next to one another.

He grinned. “Only kidding,” he said, moving down a seat.

Well, there we are then. True love reigns supreme. Or at least joint-milkshake ownership.

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End of the line

Is the Network Theatre a cool theatre? For some reason, I’d always had it filed away in my brain as a cool theatre. Something to do with the location (down a scary road down the arse end of Waterloo Station), or the name perhaps. Whatever. I’ve always considered it one of the capital’s cool theatres, which is probably why I’ve never been before.

And why, when it came to get the Network ticked off my list, I couldn’t damn well find it.

According to Google Maps, I should be standing right on top of it, but there was nothing there but an empty road and a blank wall.

Thankfully, a small niggle of intuition told me that I should check the Network’s own website, and there I found the charming warning “Network Theatre is rumoured to be difficult to find, so check out the map and directions below before your first visit.” But more importantly, up top and in bold, they are the foresight to include: “While the VAULT Festival is on 30 January – 17 March 2019, please use the Launcelot Street entrance, located off Lower Marsh, between Greggs the Bakers and a repair shop. Festival Assistants will be there to guide you.” Brilliant. I knew exactly that was. I even knew what the Festival Assistants looked like. Pink jackets. That’s what they wore.

Back down the road I went, down a flight of stairs, road the corner, past Greggs, down Launcelot Street, and there, waiting at the bottom, was a pink-jacketed Vault rep.

“Hello,” she called out to me when I hurried down the road towards here. “Are you here for the Network Theatre?”

“I am!” I puffed back.

“For The Limit is it?”

“It is!”

“Excellent,” she grinned back. “It’s just this way,” she said, moving towards some tall metal gates. They looked very official what with their number key pad and signs and industrial lighting overhead. She pushed it open and held it open for me, using her free hand to point down the street beyond. Well, I say street, but really it’s a tunnel. If you ever take the exit from Waterloo Station that’s just past the MacDonald’s, the one that faces onto the Old Fire Station, and wondered what was down that dark and dingy alleyway on your right, the one always full of service vehicles and men in hi-vis jackets, well… it’s the Network Theatre.

“It’s on your left,” she explained. “There’s a big Vault Festival banner by the entrance.”

Good thing too, because even knowing it was on the left, I could have walked past it a hundred times without seeing it if it wasn’t for the banner.

If subtly is cool, the Network Theatre is by far the coolest venue in London. It’s like those fancy restaurants that don’t even put a number on their door, figuring everyone worth knowing already knows about the place, and everyone who doesn’t, they wouldn’t want turning up anyway.

Once you step through the door, there’s no question of where you are. I doubt Network Rail goes in for dark red receptions. Nor do I imagine them to be soundtracked by the distant strains of a vocal warm up.

For once at a Vault venue, there was no usher wearing a tablet slung over their shoulder on a string. There was a proper box office. With a laptop and everything.

“The bar is open if you want to have a drink before the show,” said the woman manning the desk after we’d sorted out the business of names. No need for tickets or even admission passes it seems. Give your name and go straight in. That might just be a Vault thing though. The Vault Festival doesn’t anything as old fashioned as tickets. It’s all tablets on strings and pdf e-tickets down their way.

Through the door on the right, and I was plunged into a dark corridor. Very dark. The red of the reception was left behind and was replaced by theatre blacks, a curtain separating corridor from theatre-space. The warbled notes of the warm up intensified.

My eyes searched for anything in the black, a corner, a seam, a crack -anything to guide me through. I kept on walking, and eventually a slip of light opened up on the left, pouring out from the bar. I dove into it, finding myself blinking against the sight of the mint green walls.

Oh… this was not what I was expecting. With the rows of faux leather chairs, and sad looking bookshelves, it looked more like a dentist’s waiting room than the bar of a theatre. Especially not a cool theatre.

Perhaps, I thought, with a flash that took me by way too much surprise, perhaps the Network Theatre wasn’t a cool theatre at all. Perhaps I’d got it all wrong. Perhaps the Network was really just only of those weird little outer London theatres that had mistakenly found its way to Waterloo after getting on the wrong train. It happens to everyone at some point, why not to a theatre?

But then, with an equally surprising flash, another idea took hold.

It was all part of an ironic aesthetic. A theme bar. And the theme was train station waiting room, circa 1974.

That made much more sense.

With a smug stride, I strode over to the bookshelves to check out what titles that they had on offer. Train timetables and trainspotters’ guides, I bet myself. And those official looking leather-bound tomes were probably some old bylaws of the rail network or something equally wryly dull.

I stood staring at them for a full twenty seconds before I my brain was able to process what they were.

Playtexts.

Normal playtexts.

As you might find in any theatre bar with literary pretensions.

Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard. John Osborne. Joe Orton. David Hare.

It was a good collection to be fair, but…well, it’s not quite the library at The Bush, is it?

I moved onto the leather bound books, hoping that there at least me might get a wink of wit.

I crouched down to get a proper look at them.

Readers Digests. Every one.

When I said it looked like a dentist’s waiting room, I didn’t realise quite how accurate that was.

“Can I have a Diet Coke?” someone asked at the bar.

I nodded approvingly. Good choice. The dentists’ choice.

“Its room temperature, just so you know,” said the barman as he placed a can down in front of her.

Warm coke? Ergh. Just the thought was enough for my stomach to roil over.

I escaped back to the safety of the black corridor, where such travesties are hidden in the shadows.

Thankfully, the house was open by this point (the black curtain had been drawn back), so I went in. This was lucky, as it meant I had a pick of seats, and I could select one that had a freesheet on it. Now I understand the logic of only placing one freesheet on every other chair, as most people going to the theatre tend to do it in twos, but as a frequent solo flyer, I don’t want to be left in the cold when it comes to knowing who’s in the cast.

Especially this cast… I mean, come on. A musical about a lady mathematician during the French Revolution… I was never not going to love it. I didn’t understand a word of the maths, but you know I love me some britches action.

At the end of the show, our star (who I know is called Nicola Bernardelie because I got me a freesheet. You won’t find that information anywhere else. Believe me. Not even the theatre company’s own website. I’ve looked. Sort it out, Bottle Cap Theatre) stepped forward and politely asked us to write a review and to get out, because the next batch of audience members would be arriving any minute.

I did as I was told. Both in the getting out quickly, and the writing of a review (ta-daaaa!!!).

Back out in the weird, tunnel-street, I struck off in the direction of Waterloo. I didn’t get very far.

“Oh,” I said, turning to the two women walking behind me… “I think we’re locked in?”

It did appear that way. Large metal gates blocked the exit.

“Just push it,” said one with a knowing smile.

I pushed it, and it swung open easily. I matched her knowing smile with an embarrassed one.

Whatever the coolness-level of the Network Theatre, it seems I’m not going to reach it any time soon.

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Pixel this

Praise the theatre gods, I got a new phone!

No more will you have to suffer through my dimly lit snapshots.

I’m sad to see my HTC go, but it was time. He was suffering. He couldn’t stay awake while not supping on a charger, and his camera whirred and clicked every-time he tried to use it. It was a cruelty to keep toting him around with me to the theatre every night. RID, my friend. Rest in a drawer.

And, not to sound cruel, but once I’d made the decision to let him go, I didn’t hang around for long before getting a new one. I was off to Argos before work and treated myself to a Pixel. Gen 2. I’m not made of money. But still, they’re known for the quality of their pics taken in low-lighting, which is just what I need for this marathon. Theatres tend to be dark places.

And, oh baby. What a difference it makes. I spent the entirety of my walk to Wilton’s Music Hall taking pictures of, well everything - street signs, architectural details, graffiti…

What? Okay, okay, okay. I hear you. No, seriously, I do. “What are you blathering on about, Maxine?” you say. “is this a sponsored post? Are they paying you, Max? Have you sold out? Stop with the corporate shilling and start writing about Wilton's Music Hall. I love Wilton's Music Hall!"

Yeah, well. I already knew that. 

And you know how I know? 

Because everyone loves Wilton's Music Hall. It's the default emotional setting when you think about that place. Not loving Wilton's Music Hall is like not liking puppies. Or chocolate. "Do you like Wilton's Music Hall?" is probably one of the six questions on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (the other five are just: Are you sure you don't like it? No, but really? Have you even been there? Final answer? Okay, but what are your thoughts on puppies?

You know what people said when I told them I was heading off to Wilton's for the evening? "I loooovve Wilton's."

Every. Single. Time.

And every single time it was said exactly like that. With the elongated looooovvvve.

After a while, I began to feel like I was stuck in an episode of Russian Doll, but with less dying and smaller hair.

So what I’m saying is - don't be thinking you're original.

Ya Basic.

We all love Wilton's Music Hall. It’s the pumpkin spice latte of theatres. Mostly because it turns us into a gaggle of overexcited Valley Girls when we talk about it.

And don’t worry. I’m not exempt from the love fest. I’m right there with you. Metaphorical iPhone in hand (I told you about the Pixel, right?), and not quite so metaphorical Ugg boots on my feet.

When I finally traipsed all the way over the Whitechapel I spent countless minutes taking photos of the exterior, with its heavy red-painted shutters, huge double doors and flipping massive carriage lamp.

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Everything about Wilton’s seems oversized. Even the alley it lives in is as wide as a boulevard. Standing outside it you feel like you’ve been transported to a model village, where the scaling is just ever-so slightly off. The details made too big to accommodate their maker’s clumsy human hands.

Feeling like the Major of Toy Town, I pushed the door open.

Inside, low ceilings combined with bare stone walls and a creaking staircase to give the air of a provincial castle. Iron bars block off wall apertures that could surely have imprisoned a witch in another age. Shadows dart around corners, giving the constant nagging thought that there’s a sword-fight happening just out of sight.

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Perhaps they were, as I was there to see Pirates of Penzance, there might well have been some last minute rehearsals going on backstage.

Although it’s hard to imagine anyone smashing a sword on a person's head in this place. Everyone is so damn happy.

Whether I was blocking their access to cupboards, or sneaking into the balcony so that I could take some photos from up there, everyone went out of their way to be kind and gentle and apologetic.

Apologising to m. As if I wasn't the irritating twerp with a new phone, getting in their way. 

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I was beginning to think the powers that be at Wilton's, Mister Wilton if you will, must be putting something in the water.

I was there on a press ticket, and with it I’d been given a drinks voucher.

Did I dare use it? Would I come out of there humming Gilbert and Sullivan and wishing my gallant crew a good morning?

I really should, I thought, trying to convince myself. It’s all part of the experience, ain’t it? If I can review interval pie, then I should damn well review pre-show wine.

But I like pie. And I don’t like wine.

I stared at the voucher a good long time before deciding I wasn’t going to risk it. I was heading straight to my seat.

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“Row G,” said the lady on the door as she checked my ticket. “You’re just there on the left.”

She beamed, her smile as wide as a Pret barista. “Just past that twirly pillar over there.” I looked over and found the pillar. It was twirly. I must not have looked confident about the existence of the twirly pillar, because she carried on. “Do you see that girl with the white shirt? You’ll be near her.”

“Got it,” I said hurriedly, before she started offering to take my hand and personally escort me to my seat.

By the time the interval rolled around, I understood.

It was the show.

Happy shows make for happy audiences. And happy audiences lead to happy ushers.

It’s just maths.

And Pirates of Penzance is a very happy show.

The type of happiness that can only be felt when everyone involved is faking it.

Fake moustaches. Fake eyebrows. Fake ladies…

Ah yes. The fake ladies. 

Is there any greater sight than an entire ensemble of dashing young men swishing onto the stage wearing crinolines? If there is, let me die in ignorance of the existence of such a spectacle, because it would surely kill me anyway.

Still not trusting the wine, I spent the interval roaming around and pointing my Pixel at everything in sight. But what I should have done was switch my microphone on. Everywhere I went, men were humming refrains in their wives’ faces. “Are you converted yet?” asked one with a laugh. It turned out she was, as she hummed the next line right back at him.

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The humming continued right into the theatre. As I stood on the edge, trying to capture the sloped floor (if you ever want to know what it’s like to perform on a raked stage, may I suggest getting a seat at the back of the Wilton’s auditorium? You’ll soon learn the footwork required as you shuffle between the rows) different tunes clashed in a battle of hummers as the Gilbert and Sullivan acolytes filed back to their seats.

The emergence of the cast for act two did nothing to detract them, and the quieter moments were often punctuated by the echo of the fading notes as the hummers joined in.

And strangely, I found myself rather enjoying their contributions. With the pros on stage doing their stuff without the aid of mics, and the single pianist providing the accompaniment, it had the casual air of a boozy pub sing along. A very sophisticated sing along, for sure, but it felt... real.

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What an alarming thought.

Thankfully it didn't last long. Built to Victorian fire safety standards, it takes a while to get out of Wilton's. And as I waited to exit I had the opportunity to examine the beautifully desicated walls from close range. 

The distressed paintwork was not peeling, but Pollocked.  

It was all a charade. An illusion. A theatrical set.

It was... fake! 

And that’s something really worth praising the theatre gods for.

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Who Ate all the Pies

23 January.

Picture me, at my work, checking the ole ‘gram during my lunchbreak. It’s National Pie Day, and I’m busy rolling my eyes about these made-up days while at the same time wishing I had a pie for lunch instead of my bagel, when a post caught my eye. A post featuring the picture of a pie.

A post feature the picture of a petite pie, even.

It’s in a glass jar. A very small looking glass jar (a pint-sized potted pie picture post?). But with enough whipped cream to deflate even the most exuberate Saturday morning kids’ TV host.

“Sweet news!” read the occunying post. “We will be offering a delicious selection of our famous pie jars at performances of #WaitressLondon...” yadda yadda yadda. I had already stopped reading. I was too busy scuttling across the office to show the picture to my colleague Nicki.

“We’re going, right?” I said, as if that was even a question that needed to be asked.

We were definitely going.

At first we tried to get tickets to the open dress rehearsal, but when that didn’t work out, we decided that we were willing to buy actual tickets. With money.

“Where do you want to sit?” asked Nicki, seat plan prepped and open on her computer.

“Somewhere cheap. We want to save money for pie.”

“True.”

“I mean, pie is ninety percent of the reason I’m going.”

“Pie?!”

Our pie chat had managed to attract the attention of Martha. Not content with our upcoming Les Mis trip, she wanted in on the pie-action too.

Looks like we were having a group-outing then! I just hoped the Adelphi were ready for us.

Turns out though, when the day came round, we weren’t ready for us.

Martha was unwell, and the prospect of a West End musical with added sugar overdose was making her feel queasy. 

Sucks. 

Plus, we now had a spare tickets. 

Double sucks .

Just to demonstrate the levels of our popularity, it took the entirety of our afternoons for me and Nicki to find someone to take that ticket. And yeah, it was Nicki who succeeded in bringing in our ringer pie-eater. But that’s neither here nor there. I mean, yes - she’s younger, cooler, and has a better knowledge of Chinatown eateries than me. But I’m still great company, and frankly I’m deeply offended by all those people who claimed to have ‘other plans’ when I asked them.

It was a Monday night.

No one has plans on a Monday night.

Well, except me and Nicki. And now… Kate.

Nicki wasted no time in telling Kate all about the marathon when we all met up at Cambridge Circus.

“You’ve been to 58 theatres? Since the beginning of January?” exclaimed Kate, doing her very best to keep the panic from her eyes.

“This will be number 59,” I admitted. It does rather sound a lot when you say it like that.

Thankfully, but the time we’d reached this conclusion we were already at our first stop of the evening: Bun House, in Chinatown.

“Right, we need the custard ones,” started Nicki as we joined the queue. “Do we want savoury? I think we need savoury if we're having custard. You like spicy don’t you? Have about three custard, two chicken, two lamb, and two beef. That’s equal, isn’t it?”

It was.

And if you are ever out with Nicki, I highly recommend letting her take charge of the ordering. That girl knows her shit. The bao buns were pillowy soft. The lamb was just the right amount of spicy. The chicken was pure pate goodness and the custard…

“Did you see the sign?” said Kate after filling up her water bottle. “They have a squirty guarantee.”

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Foyled again

New crushes are so exciting. The sweaty palms. The distracting daydreams. The thumping heart. The papercuts as you riffle through their playtexts…

You know you have a writer crush bad when you use your precious pre-show minutes to rush over to Foyles in order to stare at their words.

After my Cyprus Avenue-dissection with Helen on Wednesday devolved into a doughnut-based intervention, I was left confused.

Helen had no recollection of the Tom Cruise incident from watching it in 2016.

And I had no memory of, well, let’s say the use of a particular, very strong, word, from watching it on Monday.

This needed further investigation.

And thankfully, Foyles, with its generous theatre department, was just across the road from last night’s theatrical destination.

Even better, they had the original edition of the playtext. The 2016 version. Complete with very strong word.

I snapped a picture and sent it to Helen.

“Thank god I wasn’t imagining it,” came the reply.

Job done.

Not wanting to put down David Ireland’s words just yet, I wandered around, examining all the lovely plays.

By 7pm I still wasn’t really to let go, so I was forced to buy it.

That’s how they get you, these writers. With their tricksy ways. Writing good shit that you then want to read. Damn them all, I say.

I left before I had the chance to discover any more potential writer-crushes sitting on the shelves.

Probably for the best, as by the time I made my way back over the road, there was a massive queue snacking out of the box office and right down Phoenix Street.

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