James McArdle though…

Three hours twenty minutes. THREE hours twenty minutes. Three HOURS and TWENTY minutes.

That’s way too long for a play.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done the whole endurance theatre thing. I’ve seen Angels in America (8 hours 45 minutes). I did most the Almeida’s Iliad (15 hours, but I gave up around 11pm because I didn’t want to nightbus it home). The Cursed Child (5 hours 15 minutes). Twice. And Gatz (8 hours). Twice.

So, you know - I can take a long running time.

But three hours and twenty minutes? That’s too fucking much. Way too long to be convinced that the playwright has a tight while on the narrative. And yet, not long enough to feel like you’re going on an epic journey with the peformers. Plus, a 7pm start time means I’m rushing from work, so I’m already exhausted before I’ve even stepped into the building.

Which is the National in this case, because, well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? I’m seeing Peter Gynt.

Almost exclusively for James McArdle reasons.

I love James McArdle. And his Scottish accent.

I saw him, sans-Scottish accent, in Angels, and Platonov, and he was… just heavenly.

If anything can keep me awake until twenty past ten tonight, it’s James McArdle.

I decide to avoid the main entrance and slip in via the external walkways. Anything to avoid all those staircases going up to the Olivier.

The main terrace jutting out of the side of the National is filled up with people communing with the flowerbeds. High above, I can see people leaning over the concrete sides of the balconies, dark shadows against the pale concrete, like birds hanging out on power lines.

I don’t hang out with them. I’ve got a ticket to collect.

I aim myself at the glass doors that will take me into the Olivier foyer. I pass two girls rehearsing a  dance routine, using the dark windows as a mirror.

There’s a bit of a queue at the Olivier box office. There always is. No matter how early you turn up.

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But it moves quickly, and soon its my turn.

I give my surname.

The box officer types it into her computer as I spell it out. Her eyes narrow. She’s not finding anything.

“I bought it through TodayTix if that makes a difference,” I say, suddenly realising that I might not even be in the system.

“Ah! Yes it does,” she says, moving away from the computer and grabbing a pile of tickets from the counter. “Maxine?”

“Yes.”

“One ticket?”

“… yes.”

She tears my ticket away from its TodayTix friends. “You’re in the circle,” she says as she hands it to me. “One level up.”

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So up I go. It’s actually two levels to the circle. Or at least, two sets of staircases.

I’m really not fit enough for this nonsense.

I huff and puff my way up to the Olivier circle foyer, pausing at the top of the stairs as I get my breath back.

“Hello!” calls out the programme seller from behind her little trolley.

The programme trollies at the National always confuse me. They’re grey and industrial looking, and their ubiquitous presence in every foyer make me sad to look at them. But they’re full of ice cream, so… they’ve git that going for them.

The programme seller is slipping her stack of programmes. Inserting a small piece of paper into each one. There must be a cast change tonight.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask.

“That’s four pounds fifty.”

Blimey. Do you remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid? I remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid. I know some people mark their aging souls by the increasing youthfulness of policemen, but for me, it’s the price of programmes. They go up every damn year.

Still smarting from the cost, I get out my purse. Ah. Bit short on the whole change thing right now.

“Do you have change for a twenty?” I ask apologetically.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, checking her drawer. “But you’ll need to take a lot of pound coins. I hope that’s okay.”

Of course it’s okay. Pound coins are brilliant. They feel like proper money. Not like those measly five pence pieces which I lose as soon as I look at them. Pound coins are the best coins. Better than two pound coins even. I can never get enough of them.

“That’s fifteen pounds fifty in change,” she says, giving my two whole fivers and five pound coins alongside the fifty pee. This is literally the best change day I’ve ever had in my life. Fivers! Two of them! “You might want to count that,” she advises. But I trust her.

“And here’s your programme,” she says as I put my purse away. She touches the small white tongue of paper sticking out of the top of my programme. “There’s an indisposition tonight.”

Indisposition. What a quaint word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in this context. It’s usually ‘an injury’ in the dance world. And ‘cast illness’ in theatre. Indisposition makes it sound like some louche actor has been partaking of a touch too much opium and cannot remove himself from the chaise longue in time to get to the theatre.

With my programme in hand, I decide I need to head out onto the terrace to nurse my own tired head.

It’s nice out here. Not as nice as the grand terrace below. No flowerbeds to get friendly with, and no chairs either, unless you like perching on the low windowsills. But we’re high enough to get a breeze coming off the river and that’s pretty much all I want right now.

I’m enjoying it so much out here that I don’t even notice the bell that must have gone off inside, because the next time I turn around to look through the windows, the bar has cleared out and everyone has gone in.

I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder, hurrying inside.

The note on my ticket says I need to go to aisle four, which is on the left.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker on the door, but she’s not interested in that. Her eyes are pinned to my rucksack.

Shit. I’d forgotten about that. The National are super strict about the sizes of bags that go into the auditorium.

I’ve been carrying this bag for years, and it seems to be the exact right size to confuse the ticket checkers. Most of the time I get it in, but I have had more than one hurried sprint to the cloakroom when my pleading failed to melt the ticker checker’s heart.

She reaches out and grabs it, giving it a good feel. “Hmm, it’s quite empty, isn’t it? Furtherest aisle!” And with that, she lets me through.

I walk into the shadow-filled corridor, turning left and heading to the furthest door, as directed, patting my bag back into shape and trying not to feel violated.

I pull the heavy doors open and go in, taking a moment to stand up there, right at the back of the circle, to appreciate this aeroplane hangar of a space.

The Olivier is huge. Vast. If the National ever needed to raise funds, they could rent this space to Amazon to use as a central London warehouse.

I trot down the steps towards row D, peering as the seat numbers as I try to find the one that belongs to be.

A woman grabs her bag and jacket, removing it from the seat next to her and stuffing them behind her knees.

“Don’t worry, I’m here,” I say, pointing to the next seat along.

“No worries!” she says.

Even being so high off, and frankly, a little too far off to the side, the view is great. I can see all of that massive round stage, apart from a tiny clip in the corner. Plus, from here I can spy on what the band are up to.

Oh yes, there’s a band. A live band. For a play.

No expense spared here.

There’s a school group sitting behind me. or at least, I think they’re a school group. There’s defiantly a teacher amongst them “Now, the curtain is about to go up, so turn off your phones. Not on vibrate. Off. All the way off. And snacks away. I don’t want to hear your rustling.”

“The curtains are already up though,” comes the plaintive reply.

“There aren’t even curtains.”

That’s true. There aren’t even curtains.

“How do you know it’s about to start?” says one student

“It’s past 7pm. It was supposed to start at 7pm,” counters another.

The lights dim.

The band starts.

“Off,” orders the teacher over the sound of the music. “Now. Off, I said.”

May the theatre gods protect us from overzealous educators.

Just as the lovely James McArdle appears, someone starts making his way down our row.

“Sorry, excuse me,” he says he squeezes past someone.

He plonks himself in the seat next to me, and then leans in to whisper: “sorry, what seat number are you?”

“Err, sixty…?” Honestly I can’t remember. It’s a high number.

“Sixty?”

“Hang on,” I reach down to my bag to check, but it’s no good. I’d never be able to read my ticket in this low lighting. “I don’t think it matters,” I tell him. “No one’s going to move you.”

That seems to make sense to him. “I think I’ll just stay here.”

So he does. And thus settled we watch all one hour twenty minutes of the first act.

Peter Gynt is a weird play, isn’t it?

I didn’t really know the story. But I do know the Grieg music. Back when I was all of ten years old, I badgered my mum for weeks to by me a cassette tape of Peer Gynt. Which, now I say it, is probably the most revealing thing I’ve ever told you. Yes, I am that old. I yes, I was that much of a pretentious wank when I was ten years old. You thought that was a recent acquisition? Oh honey… no. If anything, I’ve mellowed.

Anyway, because of that, I knew there would be a hall. And a mountain king. But this is pure loopy-loo.

Logic was not issued with a staff pass when this production went into rehearsal.

As the house lights go up for the interval, my new neighbour leans over again. “Sorry to disturb you,” he apologises.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him.

“I think I’m actually meant to be in the seat on the other side of you.”

The seat on the other side of me is indeed empty, now that bag and jacket has been removed from it.

“There’s so many empty seats, I think you can sit anywhere.”

We look around the auditorium. There are a lot of empty seats. A lot of empty seats.

With one last glimpse, I go back out to the terrace for the interval. I need to stretch my legs. There’s a long way to go.

“It didn’t feel like one hour and twenty minutes,” says one of the students behind me when I return.

“It’s so good!”

“Everything is happening!”

“Yeah! It’s so good.”

So good.”

Bless. I love young people. So enthusiastic.

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I’m not sure the rest of the audience agrees. An already thin house is noticeably thinner. We’ve lost the entire row B down at this end. And there are patches all over the circle.

My neighbour with the coat and jacket hasn’t come back.

Things don’t get better after the second interval. My friend who couldn’t find his seat? Yeah, either he’s upgraded himself to the stalls, or he’s gone to catch a train home.

There’s only a few people left in my row, and we are all spread out like buttons on a shirt.

So we all take the only reasonable course of action. We lean back and lounge around, lolling over the arm rests in a way that we don’t have the opportunity to do all that often in the theatre, and we are making full use of the opportunity.

“That was brilliant!” says one of the students as the cast disappear after the applause. Presumably for a good lie down.

“Literally the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

“So good.”

So good.”

Not sure I can quite agree. Don’t think it’s even the best thing I’ve seen this week. Which is saying a lot as it’s only Monday.

Still, James McArdle though…

Jammy gits

All my many sacrifices to the theater gods have really been paying off recently.

After weeks and weeks (and weeks) of trying to get tickets through the National's Friday Rush, I finally managed to score a spot at not one, but two shows! They not only got me into Home, I'm Darling on Thursday, but also got me a prime central stalls seat for the Saturday matinee of Tartuffe. Now, some might claim it was because everyone in the queue was distracted by a desperate urge to see Follies, but I like to think it was the theatre gods doing me a solid after so two months of solid dedication to their cause.

So when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I was in a pretty good mood, ready to dedicate myself to the gods once more as I made my way for the first of three trips to the Vatican of British theatre this year.

I have to admit, I don't actually like the National. Or at least, not the building that it lives in.

All that concrete.

I'm sure it's an architectural wonder, and I'm just too bourgeoisie in my tastes to truly appreciate its genius, but to me, it just looks heavy and grey. A factory crossed with a graveyard. Both of which feel like the antithesis of what a home to art should look like.

Still, no one ever said serving the theatre gods would be fun. It was time to stop hanging around, gazing at the foundry and go instead and see what they've been manufacturing lately.

Queues by the looks of it.

The ground floor box office, the one that serves the Lyttleton theatre, the first of the National's three venues that I would be checking off on my marathon, had a line stretching all the way across the foyer.

I joined the end.

A moment later, an older couple did the same.

That is, they joined at exactly the same point in the queue as I had. Right next to me.

I glanced at the pair of them, and then at the space behind us. There was plenty of room, but for some reason, they thought the queue needed a right angle, and they were prepared to start that change in direction.

With four desks open at the box office, the queue was moving forward.

The people in front of me step forward. I follow their lead, closing the gap.

The old couple does too, knocking my bag as they keep right beside me instead of dropping in behind.

"Sorry," I said, turning to them. "I think we're getting a little muddled together here." I smile as nicely as I can while still being really rather pissed off.

The woman's eyes widen in innocence. "You're in the queue, and we are behind you," she sounding like a five-year-old who's just been told she can't take her teddy to school.

It takes me every little bit of emotional resource I have left over on a Saturday afternoon not to roll my eyes at this display. Rudeness I can take. The mock-offended tones of someone you can't admit their wrongdoing when called up out on it is too much to bear.

"Fine," I say, ignoring her as continues to pull the big-eyes. But when the queue shifts again I step forward they get in line behind me.

Ergh! People!

Theatres would be so much more pleasing to visit if they didn't exist.

I soothed myself by buying a programme. Surely the best programmes in London (except for mine... obvs) and only £4.50. Though I must admit to a little surprise when the usher gave the price. I remember when they were only £3, Travelex tickets were only £12 and the police force was made up of grownups...

Those were the days... when I was still young enough to sit in the front row. My back couldn't tolerate it now. Those tickets might be cheap, but so are the seats. For reasons that I could never work, except for a sneaking suspicion that whoever designed them thought that poor people should not be indulged which such frivolities as comfort, the backs of the sets in the first four rows are incredibly low. Meaning that you having to sit ramrod straight in them. I was willing to put up with it in my youth. But the combined effects of age and falling down an icy flight of stone steps way-back-when means that I take my cheap-arse up to the back of the circle nowadays.

But those brave souls chancing it on Saturday afternoon were justly rewarded when Denis O'Hare came out and started making his way down, offering them each, in turn, a daffodil.

As with the front row at the Tara Theatre, the first few refused, but they soon got into it, taking the man's flowers. I hope, unlike the invisible cucumber sandwiches, they were properly appreciated and didn't need to be swept away at the end of the show.

Come the interval, I was left in a bit of a quandary.

Sitting right in the middle of the row in the Lyttelton means that leaving the auditorium can be quite the undertaking. Those rows are hella long. And there is no central aisle.

But I had a blog post to finish, and for some reason, I can never get signal within the National's theatres. Not a sniff of a single bar. Now, I'm not saying that the National using mobile phone jammers, because that would be illegal of them, but I'm also not saying that it isn't ever so slightly suspicious that in one of the flagship venues for an industry that dislikes all forms of sensory output caused by phones, they don't feel the need to ever put up warnings or make announcements telling their audiences to switch them off. It's almost like they know that phones won't be going off during their shows...

So back into the foyer I went, where I could use the National's dodgy, but thankfully free, wifi to finish my post before beginning the long traipse back to my seat.

"Sorry," said my seat-neighbour as we did the awkward dance past each other. "I was looking at your t-shirt! It is Firefly! With... the guy!"

She meant Nathan Fillion, who was gazing out from around the edge of my cardigan.

I tried to explain it was technically not a Firefly t-shirt, but Spectrum - a made-up show devised by Alan Tudyk (who's face was lurking underneath the cover of my cardigan) in his semi-autobiographical web-comedy series, Con Man.

That must have been the wrong thing to say.

My seat-neighbour looked at me, nodded, and promptly didn't speak to me again.

Oh well.

It looked like I wouldn't be making any new friends at the National that day.

With a couple of hours before my evening show, I found a spot on one of the large doughnut-shaped stools in the foyer and set up camp, putting pictures into my post and doing a cursory proofread before posting.

"The time is approaching six pm," came an announcement of the tannoy. "Therefore we ask those using the catering facilities who are not seeing a show to kindly vacate their seats. Thank you for your cooperation,"

No, thank you for reminder, NT. It was time for me to leave.

I set off, doing the reverse of a journey that I took most evenings. Through the West End and up to Islington.

I'd been trying to put off visiting Islington venues during my marathon. I work in Islington, so I'd been trying to save these theatres for later on. When I'm worn out my months' worth of intense theatre-going, I thought it might be nice to have a few places left on the list where I need to nothing more than stumble down the road.

But that night I was heading to the Little Angel. The Studios rather than the Theatre. Not that it makes much difference, as they both show puppet productions. Puppet productions aimed at children.

Now, I have nothing against kids' shows. But I don't want to see them. Not by myself. I've already done that this marathon, and it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. So when I saw that the Little Angel had a show coming up, Carbon Copy Kid, aimed at grown-ups... well, I almost broke a key on my laptop in my efforts to book that ticket in fast.

So, there I was. Back in Islington. On a Saturday. I ended up walking past my theatre. To compensate how wrong and unnatural it felt being there on the weekend I popped in and said hello to the ushers on duty... and yeah, no, sorry. That didn't happen. I ducked my head down low and sped past, hoping no one would recognise me.

I think I got away with it.

Fifteen minutes later I was wandering the back streets of Islington, thinking there couldn't possibly be a theatre amongst all these apartment blocks, when I saw a large sign: Little Angel Studios. I had found it.

"Surname's Smiles?" I said to the girl on the desk that was serving as box office. For some reason, I always pitch this as a question, as if I'm not sure about what my name is. For the record, I'm fairly confident my name is actually Smiles. Improbable as that seems.

"Is that M Smiles?" She laughed,. "I mean, is that Maxine?"

It was.

No tickets to be had at the Little Angel, but they do have tasteful blue admission vouchers. Cornflower for adults and baby for, well, babies.

"The house is open, you can head up the stairs," she said.

There wasn't anything for sticking around for downstairs, so up I went.

I have to admit I am a little baffled by this building. On route to the stairs, I passed a large room which appeared completely empty except for a massive trough-like sink. The walls of the hallway are all stark white, with no indication that this place has anything to do with a puppet theatre, until you find the stairwell and suddenly there are old show posters on display.

It's a little creepy.

I didn't end up taking any photos apart from this one in the stairwell, partly because of the creepiness, but also because I worried that in taking a photo of a white corridor, I wouldn't be able to capture that creepiness and then all I get is you saying, "Maxine, it's just a corridor, what's so creepy about that," and I wouldn't be able to explain why it was creepy, and then you'd think I was weird, and we'd both have to live with that. Forever.

"But at least you got a photo of the actual theatre-space, Max?" you say. "Right? Right?"

Well no. I didn't.

But I have a good reason for that.

When I made it up the stairs and into the studio, the... actor? Puppeteer? Dude doing the show, was already on stage. He was all set up behind a sloped desk, holding up pieces of paper to communicate with the audience who'd already made it to their seats.

As I sat down, he held up one with a sketch of a mobile phone. There was a massive X over it.

Ah. No mobile signal jammers here there. I put mine on airplane mode and tucked it away.

I don't think he would have appreciated me taking a snapshot.

Pity though, as I really like the setup.

Around the desk, and framing our illustrator, was a proscenium arch, complete with curtains, made up paper - the swags and folds detailed in marker pen. I tried Googling the show to see if there were any pictures on the interwebs that I could show you, but found nothing. So it's up to your imagination to fill in the gaps on this one. Sorry about that.

The drawing of a phone was followed up by an old-school landline handset (no calls please), a snoring man (no falling asleep), a bomb (no terrorist action during the show please), and a sweet... wait, what? No sweets? I quickly popped a cough sweet into my mouth while he was greeting the next set of arrivals. I mean, come on - they're medicinal!

Through the medium of paper messages, he told us the duration (One hour, twenty minutes), gently berated latecomers (congratulations, you're the last people to arrive...), advised us when we were to begin (2 or 3 more minutes), and prompted us to applaud the man on the laptop who was also in charge of the sound effects via the medium of a loop station and microphone.

Nicely done.

After that, I went straight home, and fell into bed. Only to wake up eleven hours later still wearing my clothes and with a new coating of eyeliner smeared over my pillowcases.

It's been a really hard week.

The theatre gods are hard masters to serve.

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