The Punctuation of Penetration

“What are you seeing tonight?” asked a colleague curiously.

“Pain-T” was my reply, using a hard 't' that forces its way past the teeth. I’d been saying it like that all day, much to my own amusement and everyone else’s bafflement.

“Right…” she said, quickly hurrying away.

In my defence. That’s how it’s spelt: Pain(t).

Slight pause before the t, before tackling the last, segregated, syllable with full force.

I’m nothing if not literal when it comes to titles.

You don't see it much in the word of theatre, but randomly punctuated titles is a running joke in contemporary dance. Or contemp/ary dance. Or quite possibly, con(temp)/ary dance. Or perhaps even, c⁰(t3mp)/RE d@nc3.

The more the title looks like an unsolvable algebraic equation, the higher the art. That's how it works.

You wouldn't believe the nonsense that I've prevented you lot from seeing. Forget those lists of the 100 most influential people in the arts. Those list-makers don't know shit. You want to find the people who are really making an influence? Go to any theatre's admin office. That's where they live. 

Slogging it out, making ideas happen. Or not happen.

I spend a huge chunk of my time putting myself in the way of artists’ intent on throwing the entire keyboard at their titles.

Like that time I was asked to make the title a colour. Not the word for a colour, you understand. The actual colour.

It must have been around then that I started pronouncing titles exactly as they are written.

“Yes, I’d like to talk about Eggs Plus Ham. Sorry, is it not called that? But, that’s how it’s written? Eggs plus-sign Ham. Oh, do you not want people to call it that? You’d prefer them to say Eggs AND Ham? Would you like me to change that to an ampersand? Yeah, thought you would.”

When you do end up seeing one of those titles crops up, what you're really witnessing is the death of a marketer’s soul. Try as hard as you might, you just can’t hashtag a bracket.

So spare a thought for the marketing team at the New Wimbledon, who as part of the Richard Foreman season in their studio (the Time and Leisure Studio - there’s another terrible name for you) had to deal with the unsociable Pain(t).

Spare a thought for me too, because I had just passed the theatre on my way to meet my friend Ellen for tea and cake and I had spotted something unexpected on the poster.

“It’s 18+,” I said. “I did not know that when I booked.”

“What does that mean? Nudity, I guess.”

Yeah. Nudity. Now, I’m not fussed about nudity on stage. Even on tiny, intimate, studio stages. But that age warning worried me.

“It won’t be that bad,” Ellen soothed as she walked me back to the theatre apres-cake. “It’s Wimbledon. Probably just a few bare bums.”

Well, that was cold comfort.

“Can I check your bag please?” asked the sole person standing in the studio foyer.

Tucked into the side of the New Wimbledon, the studio lurks between amongst a line of squat looking shops.

It’s a bit of a shock after the New Wimbledon proper. No marble staircases. No gilt curlicues stuck on the walls. No stained glass.

Instead I was directed up a grey staircase. Purposely grey. With paint rather than breeze blocks, but still. Grey. Its knock-off Farrow and Ball credibility knocked still further by the purple balustrade. Even the doors, still set with their stained glass panels, got the grey treatment.


Like the stained glass doors on just down the stairs, the bones of this old building had been covered up with all the sniffiness of a Victorian lady unable to look upon the bare legs of her dining table least it provoke inappropriate thoughts.

Talking of inappropriate thoughts, what was that noise?

Panting. Female panting. Very excited female panting. And moaning. Very decidedly female and distinctly excited panting and moaning.

The top of the stairs was crowded with men.

Somehow I didn’t think any of them were the source of this symphony of sex.

Nor was the woman balancing the tickets on a small ledge that I could only presume was serving as our box office that night.

“Name?” she said, barely looking up as she was buffeted by people squeezing past.

“Is my name in the programme?” came a voice loud with laughter from the back of the crowd. “My name better be in the programme.”

Let’s just hope the there was no one from the marketing team in ear shot. That’s not the kind of joke that anyone wants to hear after battling against a print deadline. Least of all after they’ve spent months having to deal with that blasted set of brackets.

Name or no, I grabbed a programme and went into the theatre. Red lights simmered in a haze over the stage, and the moans grew more intense. I peered through the gloom, trying to work out where I should sit. At the back. Obviously.

That decided, I made my way up the steps towards back, and promptly tripped down a step, making my entrance to the row rather more dramatic than I had intended.

“I would have done that too if I hadn’t seen another person trip earlier,” said a lady in my newly chosen row, not unkindly.

“It’s all part of some masterplan,” I said, recovering my bag and my dignity.

“They’re secretly filming it.”

“It’ll be all over the internet by next week,” I agreed.

Though if the Time and Leisure (that name…) really wanted to go viral, they should have kept the camera trained on my face during the show. Never have I put on such a varied display of facial expressions: from squinting against the lights being blasted into the audience, to bewilderment, perplexion, and puzzlement.

Now, I consider myself an experienced theatre-goer. I’ve been to the theatre more times this year than most would even attempt in a lifetime. But nothing in the 73 shows I had seen in 2019 could have prepared me for Pain(t).

The disconnected phrases. The lack of characters. The complete contempt for storytelling.

I had to go way back to 2012, to In the Republic of Happiness, to find a mental-match to store Pain(t) with.

After a while I let my brain off the hook, and started planning my dinner. At only 70 minutes long I could be at home before ten, throwing up a whole world of culinary possibilities.

Ellen had been right. It was only Wimbledon.

I’ll leave the genuinely 18+ exploits for Magic Mike Live.

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Oh My Gardée

"Wanna risk it?"

Not my usual sales-pitch when inviting a friend to come and see a show with me, but I was putting a lot of faith in the theatre gods to deliver on this one. At first glance, it was an enticing prospect: a crowd-pleasing ballet (Fille mal gardée), an easy to get to theatre (New Wimbledon), and the prospect of cake with a local (Ellen), but once the local quickly made it known that she would in no way consider attending, it soon became clear that we were into Tom Cruise levels of risky business here. 

The ballet may have been Fille, but it was the Gorsky not the Ashton version, and it was being performed by one of those Russian-touring companies that have such a grandiose name you figure they must be fairly fancy, until you realise that fancy-companies don't tend to spend quite so much time on the regional-theatre circuit. And then there was the matter of the theatre. Or rather, its seat map. 

Less than a week before the performance and the New Wimbledon's seating plan had more brightly-coloured dots than a Cath Kidson outlet sale. With each dot corresponding to an unsold seat, there was a good chance that this was a house that was going to need some serious box office-manoeuvres to make it look presentable come curtain-up. And I was willing to place a bet on it.

I told Helen my plan. We'd buy the cheapest possible seats, up in the upper circle. With so few seats sold up there, chances are they wouldn't want to have to staff it on the night, the upper circle would be closed, and we'd be upgraded.

"Yeah let's gamble!" came the immediate reply.

Right then.

The game was on.

I scoured the seating plan and picked our seats - right on the end of the row, restricted view. Terrible, awful seats. 

This better not go wrong, was all I could think as I keyed in my card details. Or Helen was going to kill me. 

Over matcha crepes at Cafe Mori, Ellen wished us luck for our "Grim Fille."


"Message me in the interval," she ordered, with an evil glint in her eye, a little too pleased to not be going with us.

She must have already seen the posters.

"What even is that?" I asked Helen as we neared the theatre.

It was a ballerina. En pointe. Wearing a familiar looking white tutu.


"Swan Lake," we both said at the same time.

"Are they even performing Swan Lake?"

I scanned the poster. No. They weren't.

What they were doing apparently, was sticking a pink background on a random ballet image and hoping that no one would notice. 

This was not a good sign. It wasn't even a good poster.

Oh well, there was no backing out now.

We forged on to the box office.


"The upper circle is closed," said the woman behind the counter as she inspected them. "Let me get your new seat numbers."

I gave Helen my best smug face.

"Right," said the box office lady as she scrawled our new seats on the tickets. "You're in the dress circle."

We were in the fucking dress circle!

Pink Swan Lake posters or no, things were looking up.

Now, let's just freeze-frame for a moment on that smug face of mine. There's something I need to explain so that you'll understand the significance of everything that follows, something very important. And that is: I love Fille. 

I really love Fille.

I cannot emphasis that enough.

If you take anything away from this post it should be this: I love Fille.

I love the music. The costumes. The dancing. The characters. The pony.

And I love the love.

Not just the young love of Colas and Lise, but the love between Lise and her mum, the Widow Simone. And the love between Farmer Thomas and his son Alain (oh, when Thomas strokes Alain's hair, soothing the poor lad after he fails to get the girl... my heart), the burgeoning, and slightly knowing relationship between Simone and Thomas. And of course, the love of Alain for his umbrella.

No one leaves the stage without a happy ending. That is Ashton's gift to the audience. He ties a shiny pink bow on everyone's story and sends them out holding hands and singing into the night.


When the opening notes of Gorsky's Fille sounded up from the pit, both Helen and I jolted in our seats. We turned to each other with panicked looks. These were not the gentle tones of the Ashton, conjuring up a slow sunrise over rolling hills, yawning milkmaids picking hay out of their hair while the stableboy tries to find his britches. 

"That sounds sinister," I hissed at Helen under my breath.

She nodded back.

The world this music was conjuring was one where the forces of Big Dairy meant that the milkmaids were all out of a job, while the stableboys had been requisitioned to help the army tend the fires after the latest Foot and Mouth outbreak.

If the music of the overture was wrong, the oeufs were even wronger. Lise fetching eggs from the hen house? No! She should be working the butterchurn. How else was the choreographer going to fit in a knob joke into the first act?

It was then that I finally began to understand why Ashton's Fille is considered so quintessentially English. The Russians weren't going to have any knob jokes in their version. Not a single one.

Worse still, the role of Widow Simone is danced by an actual woman and not a man in a padded dress.

I spent the entire ballet giggling and gasping in fascinated horror. Like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting, I could spot the recognisable bits, but it was jumbled up - all in the wrong order, to the wrong music, and being done by the wrong characters.


"Alain catching the butterfly," we gasped as we jogged through the snow on our way to the station. "That was Lise pretending to catch the fly!"

"And Lise stubbing her toe when she kicks the door-"

"That's her mum hurting her foot on the butter churn!"

"And the hobby horse being thrown around was the flute!"

"Which makes so much more sense!"

"Yeah, where did the hobby horse even come from?"

"At least a flute at a harvest festival has a reason to be there."


"And the circles in the rain, became the maypole!"

"Oh my god, yes!"

"Ashton was like - if they want circles, I'll show them circles!"

"And he gave us a real pony!"

"For which we are eternally grateful."

"Ashton was a genius.

"Ashton was a genius."

"What vision - to turn that mess into..."

"Our Fille."


"He was a genius."

"He was a genius."

"He was a dramaturge."


"He made an actual story. With characters. I've never realised how deep they all were until..."



"That whole thing with Colas getting the Village Notary drunk and stealing his clothes..."

"So wrong."

"Because it means that we know he's seeing Lise's fantasy about having kids with him."

"Yes! Ashton hides him from her and from us."

"So when he reveals himself-"

"-we feel her embarrassment too!"

"It's a double-hitter - the joke, then the blushes. Here it's all joke."

"And oh my god, the When We Are Married mime!"

"The mime!"

"It was all there-"

"-but all wrong!"

"The timing..."

"The storytelling..."

"All wrong."

"All wrong."

"Ashton was such a genius."

"Such a fucking genius."

At some point during all this we had managed to board a train.

"I wish I could have met him," I said, as I plonked myself down in a seat. 

Helen looked shocked. I never want to meet anyone.

"I just want to hear him talk about... his process. How he took that and turned it into..." I touched my lashes. "I feel a bit emotional about him."

"Oh my god, you really do," said Helen, laughing at my tearing eyes.

I really was. I sniffed and tried to hold it together.

"This changes everything. I will never be able to watch Ashton in the same way again."

"People bang on about MacMillan being the great storyteller, but Ashton..."

"Fuck. Yes. Fucking. Ashton!"

"When MacMillan did Romeo and Juliet... the story was there!"

"Yeah, Ashton had to strip it all back and start again!"

"He took tiny moments and created a complete world!"

"He totally changed the relationship between Lise and her mother. Like... making them spin wool together, it's funny, but also, that's how you know they love each other. Her mum tapping the beat on the tambourine-"

"-the one from the first act."

"Yes, exactly. Thank you. He took the pointless act one tambourine-"

"-that added nothing to the storyline."

"Less than nothing. He took it, and transformed it, and built it up. This is something they've done a thousand times before. Mum making music for her daughter to dance around to."

"So she's not just marrying off her daughter for money. She wants her to be happy. She wants a secure marriage. Not to the lad who has probably been chasing her chickens round the yard since he was a toddler."

"Exactly. So when she finally comes round and approves the match-"

"It actually means something."

"Ashton was such a fucking genius."

"He was fucking ballsy. He was like - those Italian fouettes? My Lise doesn't need them."

"Their dancing is all about the characters."

"It's not about the virtuosity."

"It's about the story."


"Wait, is this you?" I said, looking up to see what station we were in.

"Shit yes."

Helen jumped off the train. A second later, she stuck her head back through the door. "Aren't you supposed to be changing here too?"

The doors closed. The train moved on.

I was supposed to have been changing there.


Still... fucking Ashton. 

I can't get over it.