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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Staging an intervention

“… is this an intervention?”

I thought it best to ask. I’d never had one before and I’d expected there to be more passive-aggressive daubing of the eyes with Kleenex.

The reply from Helen came quickly: “Max, you’re loved and valued…”

So it was an intervention then.

If the handkerchiefs were out, they weren’t coming through over the digital messaging system.

I took a grubby tissue out of my pocket and blew my nose before typing my reply. Just to show willing.

“The ‘me’ in my blog is just an exaggerated version of me,” I explained. “Not actual me.”

This is true.

Sort of true.

Everything I write in my blog is real. We don’t do fiction here at the London Theatre Marathon. If I started allowing myself to make things up, even small things, it wouldn’t take me long to embrace the click-bait and go full hog on a SEO-friendly spiral of lies.

There would probably also be listicles.

“How I learnt to embrace sitting in the front row”

“10 ways theatre improves your relationships”

“The cats of London theatre, ranked by snobbishness. You’ll be shocked by who’s at number 3!”

Wait, hang on. That’s a really good idea, actually…

Err, where was I? Right, lying.

I don’t do it. Everything you read has happened. I really did almost faint at the Sam Wanamaker. If I say I turned up to a show a month early, well - I am exactly as stupid as that makes me sound. Any dialogue that you encounter here is as close to an accurate transcription as what my memory can manage.

And I really do have anxiety.

Unfortunately. 

But while I may have put out more than 60,000 words since starting this blog, it might surprise you to find out that I’m fairly selective in what I chose to write about.

“Selective? Max, you spent half a blog post telling us how you turned up to one of your chemistry A-levels drunk the other day,” I hear you moan.

Yeah, and didn’t you enjoy that? Look, I could have done this marathon without ever starting this blog. A few photos and a two line review for Instagram would have served just as well. But, hey - I’m a writer. Of sorts. So that’s what I do. I write. And if I’m writing, I may as well attempt to be entertaining. Which means picking out the most interesting parts of my outings and making a pretty post out of them. Parts which very often touch on my anxiety as they are the cause of so much of my embarrassing fumbling.

And does it not work? Are you not entertained?

My name is Maximus Scaena Riseum, Runner of the London Theatre Marathon, General of the legion of theatre ghosts, loyal servant of the Theatre Gods.

Ah, yes. The theatre ghosts. What started as a silly story soon turned into a running joke and then...

“I’m not going to kill myself by jumping into an orchestra pit,” I messaged, just to be clear.

“I’m not worried about a dramatic suicide so much as wearing yourself out to a point where you are ill and miserable,” rejoined Ellen. “You know you best tho obviously,” she added, ever the diplomat.

Glad we’d got that sorted.

For the time being.

“I can’t believe I’m delivering Crosstown doughnuts while wearing a Greggs t-shirt,” I said, as I turned up at Helen’s flat that evening with Crosstown doughnuts and wearing a Greggs t-shirt.

I was at LAMDA that night, and a trip to Hammersmith is an excuse to buy doughnuts and visit Helen.

We had important matters to discuss.

Like my burgeoning writer-crush on David Ireland.

“He’s got a new play opening in Belfast,” Helen told me setting down a big mug of tea in front of me. She’d just spent the past five minutes dropping a load of intellectual chat about intertextuality and the use of language in Cyprus Avenue on me, which is the type of quality chat I’m after with my doughnuts.

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Six impossible things before breakfast

“Ooo,” cooed an old woman as she walked past me. “It’s a real boys’ club in there tonight.”

I followed her gaze through the bank of glass doors and into the theatre foyer, slightly surprised. Not just because theatre audiences are notoriously dominated by women, but because I was there for a play about the women chain makers of Cradley Heath, with a cast composed of two-thirds women, and called Rouse, Ye Women!. Somehow, I didn’t expect a massive male turn-out.

But there they were.

Two men.

Waiting at the box office to collect their tickets.

Blimey. I wonder what it’s like at the Greenwich Theatre on a less testosterone-fuelled evening.

Still, she didn’t seem unhappy about the development.

“Squeaky door,” she giggled as she pushed her way in. The door squeaked obligingly.

I followed behind, getting my own set of squeaks as I squeezed myself through the heavy door.

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I was a little bit early. After my run across the city (well, at least the well-posh portion of it) on Monday, I was determined to take it easy. Public transport all the way - starting with the tube and ending with the DLR. Not quite a door-to-door service, but I think calling an Uber for the last quarter-of-a-mile might have been a little extreme, so we can forgive the short walk I put myself through at the end.

The men were gone by the time I got to the box office, so without the ability to properly inspect such a transcendental phenomonen, I was left looking at my ticket. Brown and purple. Not a colour combination that you get to see that often.

There was a lot of it at the Greenwich Theatre though.

The squeaky doors were purple. The floors were brown. Everything else was varying shades of beige.

It was not what I expected.

If I’d been the betting type I would have put money on something a bit more, well, nautical in flavour. It’s not every theatre that has the literal damn Cutty Sark sharing a postcode with them.

But perhaps that was a bit obvious. A touch gauche even.

As I contemplated my unsophisticated imagination the church bells tolled outside.

I checked the time.

7.11pm.

I was getting that sense of cognitive dissonance again. The world had gone all weird and lumpy. Brown and purple. Time had either stood still, or sped up. I couldn’t tell.

The door squeaked.

A cool looking woman wearing a scarf as a headband was stuck in the door, her shopping bag trapped outside. Someone rushed forward to help her. A few frantic squeaks later, she tumbled into the foyer like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

I checked the time again.

It was still 7.11pm.

Time to buy a programme.

“That’s one pound,” said the programme seller.

“Bargain,” I said, reaching for my wallet and dropping my ticket at the same time.

Too many things.

I hefted my bag further up my shoulder, stuffed my phone and charger into my pocket, retrieved the ticket, found a pound coin, handed it over, and took the programme.

Now what to do with that?

It was large. A4. Or rather than A3, folded in half (for my publications peeps, we’re talking a 4pp A4 with a half-fold, printed in full colour on satin finish 80gsm paper, if I’m any judge). What was I supposed to do with it?

I didn’t have any hands free. I’d be flapping around this programme all night if I didn’t find somewhere to put it.

“You can go through if you like,” said the programme seller.

I went through the doors, and made for the nearest flat surface. I needed to fix this mess.

I carefully slid the delicate programme in after it, careful not to get it caught on any stray keys or umbrella spokes.

Zipping back up my bag, I looked up and almost started laughing.

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There is was! Hidden away in the merchandise corner.

Greenwich was officially here. Lurking behind the ice-creams.

The bell rang. The house was open.

I gave my best Cheshire grin.

That was no normal theatre bell.

It was a ship’s bell.

Sharp and clear enough to bring this fuzzy world back into focus.

Up the stairs and into the theatre, I headed right to the front of the huge bank of seats. No brown or purple nonsense here. The upholstery was blue. And in between each seat: a flag. Red. The better for waving in front of charging bullies.

This isn’t the first time this year I found a flag on my seat. I’d been provided with a Union Jack at The Yard.

I eyed it suspiciously as I pulled off my coat and gloves.

For someone who loves theatre ephemera as much as I do, I should have been more excited. But I am an experienced theatre goer. I know what props left on seats mean.

Interaction. Immersion. All the terrible I words.

I sat down. Nudging the flag away from me with my elbow, as if denying its presence would prevent the inevitable.

Here’s the thing about the inevitable though. It always arrives eventually.

Half way through a rousing union song, our Mary Macarthur opened her arms invitingly. She wanted us to participate.

I thought perhaps this was done for effect. A welcoming to the invisible women she was speaking with to join her in song. You know, acting.

I was wrong.

All around me, voices lifted and harmonies layered in rich sound.

“We are the union, the workers bound as one…”

Wait, what? I looked around me, amazed.

“We have the strength of unity, and victories can be won…”

Mary Macarthur stepped off the stage, picking up her skirts as she made her way into the audience to rouse us all.

“Together we are stronger, our voices have more power...”

How did these people know the words? Was this some famous union song? Was I on the brink of being kicked out for not being socialist enough to participate?

“And joined in a trade union, we’re sure to win the hour."

Is this something people do? Jump into a song half way through, knowing the chorus well enough to sing along? Is that just a regular thing that regular people can do? Or is Greenwich stuffed full of lyrical savants?

I mean… it’s well established that I have all the musical skills of a badger, but I’m still shocked by this.

“But Maxine,” you say with a heavy sigh. “Of course this is normal. Just look at all those Americans learning their own history through the medium of Lin-Manuel Miranda. People remember things if you put a beat to it. Even you did. Look. You literally just wrote the lyrics down.”

To which I say: yes. I did. But I copied them out of the programme. A programme which no one was reading during the sing-a-long.

And as for Hamilton. I have probably bopped around to that cast recording, Oooo… three hundred times, maybe. And I’ve seen it live. Twice. If it came down to it, life-or-death situation styley - I could probably rap along to a fair chunk of it.

But not during a first listen.

Not half-way through the damn song.

The music ended. The sole male-actor came forward. “We’ll now take an interval of fifteen minutes. Just wait for the house lights. There they are. See you in fifteen minutes.”

That should have been my cue to make a run for it. To escape. We'd only made it through act one and we were already singing. Act two could only get worse. And we still hadn’t even touched the flags.

I stayed in my seat, unable to move. I was, as the Tumblr kids say, shook.

I was right. There was more singing. And clapping along. And a fair bit of flag waving.

Mary Macarthur even whipped her programme around in lieu of a manifesto. The edges were torn and rumpled.

I nodded to myself. I was right to put my programme away so carefully. This is what happens when you just shove it in your bag with no concern for the delicate nature of the paper stock.

As the show closed, the man stepped forward again.

There was going to be a Q&A.

Before I could even reach under my seat to make a grab for my coat, the guest speaker was already on the stage. I couldn’t leave. I was in the front row. There was no getting out.

She was going to give a short talk first. There was a sheaf of paper in her hands.

Too much paper. Too many pages.

And then… okay, that was an interesting bit about Mary Macarthur. And that was good too. And wow… shit. She was one cool lady.

“I have a comment, then a question.”

Here we go.

The man stood up. “I just wanted to show you all my t-shirt. I didn’t know I was coming to see this show until 6pm, but perhaps, somehow, I did…” He was wearing a union t-shirt. With an image Rosie the Riveter. We all clapped in appreciation.

“Sorry,” said another man. “Can I just say  that if you’ve enjoyed this play, you might enjoy another play taking place just down the road…”

The ballsiness of this move was lost on me in the moment. I was too busy letting out scream of internal swear words. Shitshitbloodybastardbloodyshit. The play wasn’t in a theatre. Not a proper, dedicated-use theatre. It was a pop-up.

And it wasn't on my list. 

I quickly made a note of it on my phone.

“It runs until the 30th,” he finished before sitting down.

Eleven days to get there. Short notice. But doable. If you ignore the fact it’s February. I put away my phone.

Another man raised his hand.

And another.

And another.

The old woman had been right. It really was a boys’ club in there that night.

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You spin me right round, baby, right round

"I'm so excited for tonight," messaged my colleague to me before she'd even got into the office that morning.

Martha and I were going to see Les Mis together that evening, and Martha was pumped.

Martha loves Les Mis. She’d seen it twice.

I like Les Mis too. But it’s hard to feel excited about going to see a show when you literally go and see one every damn night. I've been to the theatre 47 times this year. Forty-seven. That's one per day with two extra for luck.

So, it's hard to get enthused about yet another musical. Especially one that you’ve seen before. Even if the before was… fuck… seventeen years ago.

For me, going to Les Mis felt like just another check mark against my masterlist of London theatres.

And a long-winded one at that. Have you heard what the running time on this show is? It’s three hours.

That’s a full half-hour longer than the majority of West End shows. And over an hour longer than Come From Away, the 9/11 musical currently playing at the Phoenix.

As check marks go, this one was going to take a long time to draw. And considering how low on ink I am generally at the moment (have I told you how ill I am recently? Because I’m really sick, you know) it was unsurprising that I was less than excited about the whole thing.

“Shall we go out for dinner?” said Martha, bouncing over to my desk that afternoon.

God yes.

Food was going to be an absolute necessity.

“Leon?”

There’s a Leon directly opposite the Queen’s Theatre. There’s even a crossing right there. Getting from one to the other can be achieved with little more than a stumble if you time it with the traffic lights.

Perfect. “Perfect,” I said.

And it was perfect. After a leisurely stroll into the West End, we ordered far too much food and scoffed the lot. It’s amazing how much your mood can improve after eating a burger and a portion of chicken nuggets in a single sitting - some people get endorphins from exercise. Personally, my neurotransmitters start firing after a hefty dose of Korean mayo.  

“At least we don’t have to go far,” I said as we struggled up the stairs.

On reflection, basement seating had been a bad idea.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only mountain we had to climb.

“Is that the queue?” I exclaimed in horror as we crossed the road.

The packed foyer of the Queen’s Theatre was spilling out across the pavement, blocking the doors, the signs, and any indication of where we were supposed to go.

Picking a door at random, we joined the queue. Only to be turned away by our lack of tickets.

“Aww,” said the ticket-checker on the door with a tilt of her head. “And you’ve queued all that time,” she sympathetically cooed.

So back outside we went, took two steps to the right, and joined the next queue. Attempted to, anyway. As it was impossible to tell where the queue was, or even how many there were. Did each ticket desk have its own, or were they sharing?

This is when it pays to be going with a plus one.

“Let’s split up,” I suggested. But Martha was way ahead of me. Literally. Her chosen queue was miles ahead. “Give them my surname!” I called after her.

She rightly gave me a look to indicate that she knew how to pick up a damn ticket, and didn’t need instruction from the likes of me.

A few seconds later, she was back to rescue me from my unmoving queue.

“Got them?” I asked redundantly.

“Yeah!” she said, waving them. “I enjoyed being Maxine Smiles.”

“Did you? Did she comment on it?”

“Yeah. I got a ‘Smiles!’” she said, lifting her voice in mock-surprise at the name.

I gave her a smile of my own. And not just because of the delight my surname brings, but also because I now had a witness to said delight.

We headed back to the original door, and this time managed to gain entry, and for the first time in my marathon, had a yellow security tag threaded through the handles of my bag.

“I have to buy a programme,” I apologised. This was quickly followed up by apologies for stopping to take photos of the corridor, the ceiling, the auditorium, and the aforementioned programme.

I’ve really become a pain-in-the-arse to go to the theatre with since starting this marathon.

“I need to go take photos,” has now became my general interval refrain.

“Well, I need to go to the loo,” was Martha’s retort.

After wandering around and eventually having to ask an usher as to whereabouts of the lady’s conveniences, we eventually located them down at stalls level.

“You should really write about how bad the loos are for women,” said Martha when she eventually emerged.

She’s not the first one to suggest it. I’ve even been asked to write about specific loos (“The ones at the Royal Opera House are so fancy,” commented a different co-worker, prior to my trip there. “You should review them”), but unfortunately for toilet-kind, I’m not a great theatre-micturater. But I promise you now, if and whenever I use them - I’ll give you my two cents on spending a penny.

For now however, I’ll be talking about the light features.

“Hey, look - it changes colour!” I cried out, immediately getting out my camera to video the shades shifting above our heads.

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As I stood there, in the middle of the foyer, filming to pretty coloured lights, an usher ducked down low to avoid getting in the way and ruining my shot.

A selfless act from someone keen to do their bit to enhance the experience that is: Les Misérables.

Between you and me (and I swear to the theatre gods, if you repeat any of this I’ll cut you) it is quite the experience. Even for a jaded old hag like me.

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From the huge wall of sound that is One Day More (“such an interval song,” was what I said to Martha as the lights rose. Literally nothing but an ice-cream break could have followed that), to the hottie to the waistcoat with a ponytail (character name forgotten, but you know who I mean), to the shocked giggle that sweeps the audience as Cosette changes race half way through act one, to the watery-eye inducing Bring Him Home (it’s my cold… I told you this already), to the mental exhaustion that is three hours of epic, fast moving, emotionally exerting, theatre that sent me right off to sleep as soon as head connected with pillow that night.

And the revolve.

Oh, man, the revolve.

This may well be the Korean mayo talking here, but can anything match the heartbreak of watching the barricades turn slowly round and revealing the events of the other side?

I’m not sure I have the energy to join the campaign to keep the ill-fated revolve right now, but you kids of the revolvution - I salute you. You are doing the theatre gods work. Down with the municipal guard! Down with confused queuing systems! Down with projections!

Martha may have stepped out humming One Day More, but I came out ready to start a revolution. 

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure

It occurred to me, while sitting up in the balcony of Her Majesty’s Theatre, that Phantom of the Opera was the first West End show I ever saw. My brother had taken us all out for our mum’s birthday. I remember cringing down in my seat, overwhelmed by embarrassment as the cast started to… sing. Ergh! Were they really going to do that all the way through?

I was about eight years old. And Phantom was too, as we both premiered in the same year.

And look at the pair of us now! How far we’ve both come.

Growing together. Learning together.

I’ve dropped in to check in on my theatrical-sibling a couple of times over the years. See how he was doing. As the (slightly…) elder of the two I thought it was my responsibility, as a big sister, you know.

Okay. I went once. When I was at university. Which, if your maths has been keeping up, you will know was a very, very long time ago.

I’m a terrible sister.

And as I don’t want to let our relationship deteriorate ant further, I came to the conclusion last night, while sitting up there in the cheap seats (a tenner on GILT donchaknow), that if I really was going to die during the marathon, then it was going to be on that night. At Her Majesty’s.

It just seemed right.

Not only because of my great kinship with the show. But also because, if I did manage to come back to haunt the theatre, I would then become The Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera. And if that isn’t a title worth dying for, I don’t know what is.

This was destiny knocking, and I was waiting by the door ready to go.

The usher posted on the balcony that night seemed to agree.

“I'll be looking after you in the balcony tonight,” he said, positioning himself at the front of the tier for his introductory speech. “Right now, take as many photos as you like. But once the show starts, no photography is allowed. If I see you, and your screen will betray you, I will embarrass you.”

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Yeah, okay mate. But one can’t die of embarrassment. Believe me, I’ve tried.

“During the interval,” he continued, his voice ricocheting off the ceiling. “For health and safety please don't congregate on the stairs as you may fall.”

Ah. That’s the stuff. That’s how it was going to happen. That’s how my marathon was going to end.

“The rake here is very steep, so don't lean forward,” he went on. I expected some dire warning about tripping and plunging head first into the stalls, but he merely followed up with an explanation that leaning forward blocks the view of the people sitting behind. Which is also good. I suppose.

“I'll shut up now,” he finished before taking up post at the wooden podium behind us, from which he could watch us all. Master of all he surveyed. A god up in the gods.

He was as good as his word.

“No photos in the auditorium,” he boomed during the interval. “I can see what your screens are doing.”

Obviously I instantly took my phone out and attempted to snap a shot.

Pointed down. Aimed at my knee.

I’m a rebel, not a tosser.

But obviously my phone crapped out and the image didn’t save, so you’ll just accept my confession without proof.

Devoid of a functional phone, I had to find other ways to secure my demise.

The door to the balcony was promising. Looking for all the world like it had been bought at the prison-closure sale, it held distinct possibilities.

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Seemingly made of metal, this door could do some serious damage if I could find someone to smash it into me, accidently or otherwise.

But there was no one about.

I moved on in search of other methods of extinction.

A little way down the stairs there was the strange case of cubby-hole 98. I don’t know what secrets the preceding 97 doors held, but I was sure that number 98 contained something fantastically dark and hopefully dangerous.

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I gave the handle a tentative tug.

Locked.

Whatever was in there, wasn’t getting out.

What else? What else? What else?

Choke on an ice-cream spoon?

Crash into the scale-replica of the theatre built of Lego that I found in the Grand Circle bar?

Hand over my debit card to the lady on the merchandise counter and tell her to keep on going until the inevitable heart attack?

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Somehow these ideas managed to lack both the dignity and theatricality that I was after.

I didn’t want the other theatre ghosts to laugh at me, after all.

How could I hold my floating head high in front of William Terriss, who was stabbed to death by a fellow actor at the Adelphi stage door and now haunts the theatre? Or Charles Macklin, famed ghost of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, who was the one who did the stabbing, puncturing the eye of his co-star with a cane while they argued over a wig (no one says what happened to the spirit of the stabbed man. Presumably he wasn’t that fussed about the wig after all, and has moved onto a realm where wigs are no longer a concern)?

If I met my end by way swallowing an ice-cream spoon, I would be the laughing stock of the annual theatre ghost convention, an event which, if it isn’t already a thing, I will institute as soon as I am within the theatre ghost ranks.

No, if I was going to go, it had to be impressive. A story worth telling at parties.

I ran through a few options as I watched the second act. I could have made a flying leap for the chandelier, but that had already had its crashing moment before the interval. Or I could have strung myself up with the Punjab lasso. That one fulfilled all the criteria - it would fit in with the show. I could organise some grand, on stage reveal - tears of shock and screams of horror would be bound to follow my discovery. There was one problem. The lasso is an invention of Gaston Leroux and is not a thing that actually exists. And while the show does have one that appears on stage, I’m not entirely sure how functional it is.

I was running out of ideas. Just as I was considering breaking into the cleaning cupboard and seeing what options lay within, the final notes were echoing up from the pit.

It was all over.

After stumbling my way down all the steps, drunk on tunes and eighties perms, I made it outside - safe and somewhat-sound.

And I realised that it was probably for the best that I didn’t die at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Phantom is going to outlive me whatever I do. And while I love my masked brother dearly, and would like to visit him more often. I’m not sure moving in is the best thing for our relationship right now.

Put the kettle on, love

Lord preserve me from going to the West End on a weekend.

With its hoards rampaging through Leicester Square tube station, disgorging themselves out onto Cranbourn Street and cluttering up the pavement with their... you know... presence.

They were everywhere. A gaggle of pink-hatted girls surrounded the Gillian Lynne Theatre. From a distance they looked like they were on their way to a protest, but as I got closer I realised the only thing these kids were demonstrating was a lack of spacial awareness, as they had to be corralled into one corner to allow other people through. 

"Get your tickets out and your bags ready for inspection," became the battle cry of the ushers.

Folded up pieces of A4 flapped in the breeze as everyone brought out their printed-at-home print-at-home tickets.

I didn't yet have my ticket. I was relying on the Gillian Lynne box office to print it for me.

I explained the situation to the nearest usher.

"You can go through, but I'll still need to check you bag though."

Well, naturally.

I opened it for him.

The corner of his lips twitched. "Right then," he said, after the merest fraction of a pause before waving me through.

In the safety of the foyer I peered into my own bag, wondering what it was that had caused his slick manner to stumble.

Sitting on top of the deep heap of items that I felt the need to drag with me everywhere, there was a massive bag of tea. Tetley. 240 teabags.

Ah.

Now, here's the thing: we had run out at home. And it was a Sunday. The shops would be shut by the time I got out of the theatre.

In those circumstances, carrying around a great big bag of tea is totally reasonable, right? And if your list of things-that-need-to-get-done involve going to the theatre, while said bag of tea is on your person... well, so be it.

I don't know why I'm explaining this all to you. You've hefted around worse.

I've seen the table of shame at the Coli. I known what you weirdos get confiscated trying to get into the theatre... never a bag of Tetley though, I must admit. Perhaps the bag-checkers at the Coli have a more relaxed take on teabags.

I should test this out. If I can get them in, I might do a roaring trade undercutting the bar prices. Just need to find out a way of sneaking in a kettle and fortunes will be mine for the making.

Anyway, enough of that. I got in, with the tea, picked up my ticket, and headed for the escalator.

Even having bumbled up and down the twin-pair at the ROH hundreds of times over the years, the presence of an escalator in a theatre still manages to make me feel like I have taken a wrong turn and ended up in Brent Cross.

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Although, given the brutalist concrete aesthetic the Gillian Lynne has going on, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt like I ended up in the Brent Cross car park. I'll give the Gillian Lynne this though, it's easier to navigate than the usual multi-storey.

The seats are more comfortable too.

I've never sat up in the balcony, but as far as I can tell, there simply isn't such a thing as a bad view in this theatre.

I was off to the far right (geographically-speaking...) and didn't miss a thing. If anything, I benefited from glimpses of those things that are usually hidden to those in the more prime locations - such as the screens bolted to the front of the balcony.

"That's the director," said a small child to the even smaller child sitting next to him. Small child pointed authoritatively at one of the screens showing the live feed of the conductor. The smaller child must have demonstrated some level of incredulity because small child was soon backtracking. "He works for the show anyway."

Despite this stumble, small child was clearly a practised theatre-goer, because as soon as the lights rose for the interval he was ready with his demands. "Can I get an ice cream?"

His mum ummed and ah he'd while he begged and pleaded. Things weren't looking good on the ice-cream front.

Thankfully the interval was saved by the magnanimous presence of dad. "Of course you can," he declared. "What else is there to look forward to at the theatre?"

Well, quiet.

The two boys ran off to join the impossibly long ice-cream queue. I stayed in my seat during to interval. Worn out, worn down, and quite frankly, just plain warm. I curled up and allowed the sound of childish chatter to wash over me, soothed by the scent of Haagan Daaz being rubbed into the seats by sticky fingers.

I began to suspect that the over-heating of the auditorium might be a ploy to increase ice-cream sales. The theatrical equivalent of a pub offering salted peanuts.

But I wasn't complaining. I was too sleepy to complain.

So sleepy that it took me a while to notice the jostling presence of someone trying to clamber over my knees.

The boys had returned with their School of Rock branded ice creams.

Nice touch.

I almost wanted to get one for myself then, but I had already decided that the School of Rock official drumsticks would be my purchase of choice if I were to allow my self to buy anything at the theatre. I mean... to get something other than the programme, of course. Programmes don't count as a purchase. They're an essential. Like loo roll and hobnobs.

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I will say that School of Rock is an excellent show to see if you have a cold. The music is so loud that if you can time things properly, a cough will be lost in the raging Stick it to the Man atmosphere.

I can even forgive them for making me clap in time with the finale. I was doing quite well until they busted out the aria from The Magic Flute, at which point I totally lost the rhythm and ended up just flapping my hands about in shame.

Still, the atmosphere is infectious. Even the Grown-Up Band (written in title case as that's how they are referred to in the programme) put down their instruments in order to rock out to the kids' playing.

As we all filed out, more than one parent caused permanent psychological damage to their offspring by humming a few of the tunes.

As for me, I never hum.

Except in the privacy of my own home. With the kettle’s whistling to cover my shame.

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Everyone's Talking About Everyone's Talking About Jamie

Is it morbid to treat a memorial as an experience? I think the fact that it is me asking this, the woman who wears all black, listens to The Cure, and grew up next door to a twelfth-century graveyard, is probably an answer in itself. If I am questioning whether something is morbid, it must be macabre af.

Last night the lights dimmed in the West End in memory of the theatre producer Duncan Weldon. I’d never seen that happen before, so I headed in early to try and catch it.

At seven o’clock, I positioned myself halfway down Shaftesbury Avenue and waited.

The lights glittered brightly.

A crowd had gathered on the pavement, phones poised and ready to capture the moment.

The Company sign hanging above the Gielgud was the first to go out. Shortly followed by the sequined Thriller Live at the Lyric.

We waited.

Lastly, after a painfully long moment, the Apollo switched off their lights.

The crowd clapped, but the sound was muffled by their gloves so they settled on a short cheer instead.

A moment later, the lights started coming back on, one by one, starting with the Apollo, and ending, an achingly long time later, with the Gielgud.

That done, is was time to head into my chosen theatre for the night.

The Apollo, or as I used to call it: The Worst Balcony in London.

I can't do that anymore.

Now it's: The-Theatre-That-Is-Lacking-In-The-Balcony-Department-Ever-Since-The-Ceiling-Caved-In-Mid-Performance-Following-A-Day-Of-Heavy-Rain-Fall-Way-Back-In-2013-Necessitating-The-Installation-Of-An-Admittedly-Beautiful-False-Ceiling-At-Balcony-Level-To-Cover-Up-The-Damage. Which is a less catchy name, for sure.

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The highest rank of circle on offer is now the grand one. Which, let me tell you, ain't all that grand. If you thought that theatres making the balcony-dwellers enter via a separate entrance was dodgy, here the residents of the grand circle also get the second class treatment. Once you’ve picked up your ticket from the box office, you are sent back outside, into the cold and the rain, to go in via the servants’ entrance, lest you offend the masters sitting in the stalls with your grubby, public-transported, presence. They even have the walls of the stairwell tiled, the better to hose-down our sticky finger marks after we’ve left.

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When I finally made it up, I made a cheering discovery. The Apollo may no longer hold the title of the Worst Balcony in London. But I am pleased to report, I think they may well be in good stead to claim The Worst Grand Circle in London prize.

Getting into row E required clambering up a massive step, which I’m sure fails on all sorts of access-friendliness scales. You’d think that once you’ve clawed your way into your seat, you would be rewarded by a fantastic view. Not so. Unless you have a particular fondness for inspecting the hairdos of strangers at close quarters.

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The Apollo will take your money just as easy as from the poshos in the stalls, but they don't believe in the poor people actually seeing the show.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand them entirely on this matter. Just as a popular artwork may be taken off display in a gallery to preserve it from the damage that comes along with being shuffled past by an endless stream of tourists, so must a show be kept hidden from the glare of too many retinas.

And naturally, it is only right that those who can’t afford an expensive ticket should not get an unrestricted view. The less they can see of the stage, the better, quite frankly! It must be safeguarded, far away from inferior eyeballs. Their funds will support the work going on below, naturally. One must support the arts. But this duty must be performed as a subsidy for the proper audiences. The ones that sit in the real seats. And pay real prices.

And wear appropriate clothes.

With the promise of heavy snow that evening, I had pulled out an original fifties circle skirt from the back of my wardrobe. Quilted with a layer of fleece hidden underneath, it is basically a duvet with a waistband attached. It is also frickin’ massive I had to keep on tucking it under my knees to prevent it from encroaching into my neighbours' laps. Totally the wrong thing to wear in cramped West End theatre seating.

I soon realised that the two people now living under my skirt were on wildly different rides that evening.

The girl on my right, a performing arts student, was on Splash Mountain. She bopped and danced around in her seat, cheered at every you-tell-the-bastards line and whispered excitedly, "this is so good!" to her friend. During the closing numbers she sniffed extravagantly, her sweet young face washed by tears by the end. Every emotion being pumped off that stage landed had straight in her heart.

The lady on my left however was stuck on the rotating Teacups and she wanted to go home. Every time a song ended and the cast insisted on doing the talking bits, she took out her phone to check the time, jostling and elbowing me as she reached into her bag and lit up the screen to reveal that, yes... only five minutes had passed since the last time she has performed this same manoeuvre. Half-way through act two, after a particularly clumsily choreographed attack on her bag and my ribs, she brought out, not her phone, but a tube of hand cream. Squeezing out a dollop, she then proceeded to work it into her skin during the heartfelt family moment taking place down on the stage. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so committed to skin hydration since The End of the World (“Moisturise me!”).

As for me, I just kept on thinking about a band of young men I’d passed on my way there. About how they had rushed into the road together, right into the traffic. A taxi screeched at them and one of the young men screeched back: “Run me over! Do it! I want to die!”

And I thought about the dimmed lights.

And the people taking photos.

And the girl on my right who was feeling all the emotions.

And the woman on my left who was feeling none of them.

And the stage that I couldn’t see.

And the painted forest scene hanging above us.

And the broken roof that lurked above this enchanted image.

And the snow falling on it.

And I wondered, if this was my last night on earth, would I be happy that I spent it here.

And.

And.

And.

And then I went home.

Theatre of Dreams

Last night I was at The Shed. It was a very strange place to find myself, considering The Shed is a theatre that no longer exists. Where it once stood on the Southbank, its towering red walls bright within the shadows of the National Theatre that loomed over it, there is now only empty space. The wooden walls have been brought down and cleared away. But my subconscious doesn't seem to have caught up with these developments. Because last night, as I slept, I went back to The Shed.

It's not enough that I spend everyday writing and thinking about theatres, working for one during the day and visiting the rest at night. They've now started to invade my dreams.

It was quiet a nice dream though. I did like The Shed. I'm sad it's gone.

Unfortunately, it doesn't count towards the marathon. On account of it not being a real place anymore, and me dreaming up the entire trip.

Thankfully, I do have a bona fide, genuine theatre, that isn't made of sleep-deprivation and the murkier portions of my imagination, to cross off the list.

For once, I was off to an area of London that I actually knew. A bit.

Hammersmith. It's on the Piccadilly line. And close to the river. And it's home to the Lyric. No, not that Lyric. The other one. The one that doesn't house the source of all my anxieties while holding itself together with duct tape.

The station also has two doughnut shops in it. Which I feel is just the right amount of doughnut shops, and is something TFL should be looking at rolling out across the tube network.

These are all the facts that I know about Hammersmith.

Or the facts that I did know about Hammersmith. I have a few more now.

Like: The Lyric Hammersmith has some excellent signage going on throughout the building.

Yes, it’s all a bit cutsey. A bit… wannabe innocent-smoothie-copywriter-esque. But it’s big. And clear. And there is lots of it. Which is what we want from signage, isn’t it?

I found it all very soothing. It’s like Bach’s Rescue Remedy, except painted on a wall and without the aftertaste of rotten flower petals.

Also: Usually when you buy tickets via GILT (tickets from £10 in the New Year’s sale still available last time I checked), the ticket you are presented with at the theatre is from See Tickets. You probably know the ones I mean. They’re pink and yellow, with a starburst effect. Kinda ugly.

Not so at the Lyric. Here you get a proper Lyric Hammersmith ticket. With their branding. Including a heart watermark, and the title formatted in a brush-stoke styley font that matches the signage. You can tell that they spent on lot on brand consultants, and they are damn well making use of it. Nothing will go unbranded. I bet even the loo roll is printed with some uplifting and adorable tagline.

It might sound like I’m making fun, but that’s only because I am so in awe of this commitment to all things Lyric Brand. Kudos to whoever is the brand guardian at the Lyric Hammersmith. You are doing great work. May the theatre gods bless and keep you safe.

Lastly: There’s a super lovely terrace. And we all know how much I appreciate a terrace. I spent some quality minutes out there, taking photos and contemplating the heads of the people wandering down below.

Sadly, minutes were all I had, as it was time to head into the auditorium.

A few tasty signs later I got my ticket checked at the door, headed down a short red corridor and…

What the actual fuck?

I stopped dead, blocking the doorway. It was only when the person behind me coughed politely under his breath that I managed to gather myself enough to move over to one side. And then I stood some more. Staring.

Gilt? Plaster mouldings? Crazy-ornate ceiling?

Was I hallucinating? Had the lack of sleep finally got to me?

No, I was fairly sure my imagination is not that good.

It was real.

My brain refused to believe it. There had to be some other explanation for what I was seeing. Perhaps, it suggested, firing up some long neglected synapses, I had wandered through a portal to another dimension while making my way down that red corridor. Or maybe, piped up another thought, I had neglected to change lines when I got off the train at Leicester Square, and had made my way to one of the West End houses instead.

But the terrace? I argued.

“The Garrick had a terrace,” snapped back my brain.

But not like that. It was an itty bitty thing. It didn’t have plants.

My brain shrugged. “A portal then.”

I didn’t have the energy to argue anymore.

Final fact about Hammersmith: the auditorium of the Lyric theatre is housed in a separate dimension.

I took a few photos just to prove to myself that I had actually been there, that I had journeyed between two universes, and lived to tell the tale.

After that, I needed to sit down. The cognitive dissonance of stepping from a modern building into an Edwardian auditorium, full of curly architecture, was too much for me.

That may have been a mistake.

One thing that became very clear about this other universe is that the people are missing one of their senses. Either proprioception, or the one of the common variety. I swear every single person passing through the row behind me managed to thwack me across the back of the head.

I mean… maybe they saw me up on the terrace on their way in, and sensed that I was judging the top of their heads and thought I needed a good smack applied to mine. I know not. What I do know, is that I got a bit of a headache after the fifth person managed to introduce the corner of their handbag to my skull.

Thankfully it didn’t stop me enjoying the show.

Leave to Remain sounded very worthy when I booked it. And no fun at all. Thankfully, I was wrong. Very wrong.

It’s charming AF and was the cause of my second standing ovation of the year (my first was, unsurprisingly, at the Playhouse Theatre for Caroline, or Change).

I may have even had a little cry on the tube ride home.

Don’t judge.

I am very tired.

Travelling to another universe will do that to a person.

And might go someway to explaining my dream about The Shed.

Still, inter-dimensional portals or no, I look forward to returning. And I don’t even need to wait until next year on this one! The Lyric has a studio space that I have to see. I might even treat myself to a doughnut to eat on the terrace.

The great debate

I went off book last night. Or rather, off spreadsheet.

I was meant to be going to see a play about a man on the brink of suicide. It was all planned and marked up.

Wednesday / 16 January 2019 / Evening / The Loop / Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

I’d logged that at least a week ago. But when Wednesday morning dawned and I still hadn’t bought a ticket I knew that I couldn’t face it. I needed something more upbeat. Something with songs perhaps. So, I shuffled things around and decided to go see a musical about a girl with a massive, disfiguring scar on her face, chasing after a miracle that’s bound to let her down. Much more uplifting.

Now unconstrained by spreadsheets, I headed into the West End. Or rather Charing Cross. Or, even more specially, Charing Cross Station. Well, under it at least.

I have a soft spot from sub-station theatres. 17 days into my marathon and The Union Theatre is still ranking as my number one theatre experience (followed briskly by the Playhouse and the Brockley Jack. Not that it's a competition you understand. Except it kinda is). There’s something about hearing a train rumbling on overhead that makes a play feel so much more epic. It’s as if every production is set within a permanent thunder storm.

Both under railway arches they may be, but the Charing Cross Theatre is no wee little 75-seater. In the grand throw down between Charing Cross the the Union’s Waterloo, the north-of-the-river station would win tracks-down. On size alone, you understand. You could fit at least four Unions within the Charing Cross Theatre’s auditorium.

Everything seemed bigger at the Charing Cross.

As I pottered about in the foyer (taking mirror selfies, you know how it is), I spied the usher’s snack tray. Bags of Malteasers lined up next to king size Snickers and Mars bars. Holy shit on a cracker. Those are not theatre-snacks to be nibbled on during an interval. They are proper petrol-station snacks, built to sustain the a long road-trip.

The Charing Cross Theatre ain't playing no games.

They were West End (or at least, West End-adjacent) and they were ready to compete with the big-boys. This was no fringe venue. And they weren’t going to be confused with one. No matter what type of public transportation system was sitting on top of them, rattling their bones.

They even have a proper box office. Staffed by someone who seemed to have been hired for the sole reason that she radiated loveliness. Made all the lovelier when she handed me a proper ticket. One that I could take home with me. You see? West End. Definitely.

But then something caught my eye. There, on the box office counter. Something bright. Very bright. Orange even. Surely the brightest and most eye-catching of colours. And made of paper, which is always sure to get my attention.

“Can I take one of these?” I asked.

“Of course!” said the lovely box office lady.

It was a cast sheet.

Oh.

I looked around, checking for any programme sellers. Nope. No one. This was all we got.

So, maybe they are a fringe theatre then? If you squint and forget that the Strand isn’t just around the corner.

It makes sense. West End playhouses tend to been drinking great Edwardian things. Yes, there are outlets, but when you picture a West End theatre, there tends to be more in the way of curly architecture, and less, well... trains.

I had to do more investigating.

I wandered around, gathering evidence. West End or Fringe. It was hard to tell. It was all so conflicting.

Over my head there was a massive chandelier: West End.

But behind me was a strange arcade machine shoved in the corner: Fringe.

The ushers were wearing natty little waistcoats: West End.

But… what’s that?

 Is that a proper, physical, theatre bell?

I positioned myself near it, determined to catch it in action, but when the bing bongs came they arrived over a tannoy - with more than a little flavour of Hi-de-Hi!.

Oh.

That was disappointing. And it didn’t help settle the matter of West End or Fringe either way. Further disappointment.

With a heavy heart and a confused head, I decided it was time to go downstairs and take my seat. Hopefully the auditorium would hold to key to solving this mystery.

“Nice coat you got there,” said the usher taking my ticket.

“Oh, well, thank you,” I managed to reply, feeling a little flustered. It is a nice coat. There’s no denying it. But I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my outfit by an usher before

How do we even classify that? Definitely not West End.

Still preening, I took my seat. Row X. Ticket’s ain’t cheap at the Charing Cross (they have West End prices, that’s for sure).

But with the stage in the middle of the auditorium, and with seating either side, I may have been in the back row, but there were only 11 more in front of me.

And, even better, a tech desk directly behind. Like, literally, right behind me head. That was exciting. I love a tech desk.

I was looking forward to sneaking glances behind me during the show.

“So sorry, can everyone in this row move forward,” said an usher, leaning into the back row. My row.

We all blinked at him in incomprehension.

“If you could all just move forward, exactly as you are, to this row,” he added, indicating the empty row just in front of us.

It was happening. I was being moved out of my row. Just like with that bloke in the Vaudeville. I had seen how it should be done, and now it was time to make a stand. Or rather to not make a stand. I would sit. The revolution may have been slow to get started, but I would do my part. This was it. It was our time. We were going to rise up against our oppressors, the ushers.

I stood up, ready to face down the usher.

I looked at his smiling face and refused to break.

But then I remembered the coat-comment from earlier. And the lovely box office lady.

Reader, I’m ashamed to admit it. But I moved.

The seats in front were a little bit better. And I was still feeling pretty glowy after my compliment.

Glowy people don't start rebellions. They're too busy being smug and happy.

Revolution would need to wait for another day.

Our vacated seats were soon filled by the creative team, blocking my view of the tech desk.

Fucking. Rude.

My glow faded.

I crossed my arms and waggled my foot with irritation. The show better be good, I thought to myself. I was going to have to sit there, for a full hundred minutes, no interval, and have nothing to watch but the performers.

Lights dimmed. The cast emerged. And they started singing.

Over-amped, I sneered to myself.

I was determined not to have a good time.

And then I forgot. Forgot about being made to move. And the lack of a tech-desk view. Forgot about the creatives sitting behind me, until…

One of the groaned.

Oh dear. Something had gone wrong.

I scanned the stage. I hadn’t seen anything go awry. Perhaps this seat-stealing creative just had a stomach ache.

I lost myself in the show once more.

Until…

Another groan.

The cast sang on, still nothing visibly wrong.

His stomach ache must have been really bad. I wondered if I should offered the use of an aspirin. But then I remembered I was supposed to be annoyed with them, so decided to let him suffer through without medical assistance.

Besides, I was enjoying the show. And didn’t want to be distracted.

By the time I emerged back into Cavern Street shopping arcade I still hadn’t come up with the answer to my question: West End or Fringe?

Now, looking back on it all, I’ve come to a conclusion: I am not qualified to make such decisions.

Who cares if it belongs to the bright lights of the West End, or runs with the cool cats of the Fringe? Surely all that matters is the theatre, and what it makes us feel as we come together to form the single, living, breathing organism that is: the audience... ergh. That's theatre wankery if ever I heard it.

Fine. I'm calling it. It's West End. Done.

The Nightmare After Christmas

You'll be relieved to hear that I've given up on selfies. And not just because I forgot to put on eyeliner yesterday. Yeah, I thought that was impossible too, but apparently if you stop midway through doing your makeup to rush back to your laptop in order to add in another paragraph to your high-stress-making blog, you can forget to go back and finish it off. Shout out to my lovely coworker who offered up the use of her fancy Dior mascara and absolutely saved my life. Even if my Goth points are currently running on empty without my trademark dark wings.

It was a very distressing day.

Not helped by the fact that I needed to go to the one show in London that I had absolutely no intention of seeing. Ever.

If you read yesterday's post you'll know that I'm a big fan of shows moving on and making way in theatres for something new. So, I wasn't entirely unhappy to hear that one of my favourite theatres was being freed up this year. I mean, sucks for everyone working on the production (totally been there... and in this theatre as it happens), but dammit - stop hoarding the pretty.

Unfortunately, this closure wasn't to be followed by a show switcharoo. It was going into full darkaroo mode. Long-term darkaroo.

So, I need to give another shout out. This one to the wonderful theatre klaxon of twitter that is @weez for pointing out that if I don't get my arse to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane by the end of the week, I'd be locked out for the refurbishment until 2020.

Just think - I nearly failed this entire challenge before even getting through week one!

So, I went. Not only that, I spent money. Real, hard earned money. On tickets. To a show I just knew, deep in my soul, that I would hate. For this challenge.

You had better all be bloody grateful, that's all I'm saying.

As I walked into the West End, I could feel my feet dragging beneath me. So badly did I not want to go, I even took a detour back to Litchfield Street to try and get another photo of the Ambassadors and St Martins Theatre (it was bothering me that I didn’t have a shot of the two of them together for yesterday’s thumbnail).

It was like I was daring myself to miss the show.

No wait. That's mean. I'm sure 42nd Street is a perfectly wonderful show for those that are into that sort of thing. Me? I'd rather smear my eyes in butter than sit through that again.

Okay, now that really was mean.

It's not that I thought it was bad. It was all very glossy and well presented, in that sequins-and-stockings kinda way. Unfortunately, the world of technicolor leaves me cold. I have no patience for razzmatazz - the music has the same effect on me as nails down a chalkboard does to others.

But even I could see that everyone on stage sung and danced themselves into a frenzy. The strain of their megawatt smiles was visible all the way from the tippy-topp of the auditorium.

Having worked on a show while it lived in this theatre (I won't say which one, as that will date me hard - let's just say it was pre the last refurbishment), I should have known better than to sit up there. But for £19.50 that's the best I could hope for, and I sure wasn't going to pay more. And, well... so what if I missed bits of the show? I was there to do my duty, not have a good time.

Still, I hadn't anticipated quite how much I would miss. There were entire scenes during which I did not once manage to catch a glimpse of the principal cast. I could hear them, so I knew they were there, but what they were up to was an utter mystery to me.

They even print a note on the tickets advising you that you may need to lean forward, which every experienced theatre-goer knows is the ultimate no-no as it blocks the view of the person sitting behind you. You know when a theatre is telling you to do that in their balcony that things are bad up there.

And I had completely forgotten.

Though admittedly, the last time I'd sat up in the balcony there'd been a massive dragon pinned to the ceiling, so I might have been a little distracted.

It's a good thing this is the 21st century, because in a less polite time, such nonsense might have provoked a riot.

Which is why it is only sensible that the balcony-dwellers are cut off from the rest of the theatre. Barred from walking through the main building, they are forced to use a separate entrance on the side of the building.

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Look familiar? That's because this covered walk-way has been used in every period drama ever filled in London.

Once inside there are no plush carpets to be found. No glossy hard wood banisters. No massive paintings decorating the walls.

Just stairs.

And more stairs.

And yet more stairs.

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And what is your reward when you do finally reach the pinnacle?

The bar.

A relief for everyone who has just climbed the theatrical equivalent of Mount Everest and is in need of a glass of wine and a sit down to accompany their oxygen tank.

Except the whole prison-vibe they’ve got going on back there extends to the balcony bar too.

I don’t think I’ve been anywhere quite so bleak and depressing.

I didn’t stick around.

Two of the four chairs in the balcony bar at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Two of the four chairs in the balcony bar at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Prison-like bar in the balcony at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Prison-like bar in the balcony at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

I was not to be outdone though.

This intrepid reporter was determined to show you the glamour and the beauty of this magnificent old beast of a theatre, and wasn’t going to be put off by mere stairs. No matter how many there were.

As soon as the house lights were up for the interval I raced to the door and flung myself down all those stairs, intending to run around the building, through the front door, blag my way into the main foyers, up the main staircase and head to the upper circle.

What’s in the upper circle I hear you ask? Only a frickin ghost! That’s what.

Don’t ever say that I don’t bring you drama. I’m giving you a personal ghost tour here!

The theatre’s wikipedia page has some fantastic details on the various spectral entities of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and I am very disappointed to tell you that I can corroborate none of them. I have never had the tiniest sniff of a ghost in any of my many visits to this grand old dame. I don't think they like me. Which is really quite distressing as I am desperate to be their friend. Or even their enemy.

Dammit, how much is it to ask that some floating phantom just notice me for once?

Perhaps I'm just too needy... I suspect that I should start playing it a bit cooler.

I can't help myself though. I just love ghosts so much. And I was determined to find one.

And the upper circle was the place to do it. The Man in Grey is one of the few front-of-house ghosts at Drury Lane, and that's where he likes hanging out. Spotting him is also, apparently, a sign of good luck. So as ghosts go, one might say he's beginner-friendly.

Except, when I got to the bottom of the stairs, I found myself foiled. By a closed door.

Hmm.

The usual procedure in such situations is to open the door. Which I did. But here’s the problem: this door can only be opened from the inside. If I were to leave, the door would shut behind me and with no usher posted on this tricksy door to let me back in, I would have been locked out.

The prison vibe extends far beyond the bar. The balcony-dwellers are truly trapped inside for the duration.

Or rather, they can leave, but they can never come back.

I did seriously consider risking missing the second act for the sake of some ghost action, but in the end I trudged back up the stairs and focused my attentions on taking photos of the ceiling.

There are some compensations for being so high.

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I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed.

Here I am attempting to do a tour of London’s theatres, and I couldn’t even get into the main bit of one of London’s largest and oldest.

And while I haven’t technically failed the challenge yet, I do kinda feel that I am not exactly succeeding.

I hope the ghosts stick around for the refurbishment.

I’m looking forward to seeing Frozen. And, just putting this out there, any ghost is welcome to join me as a plus one.