Between you and me, I’m feeling rather pleased with myself right now.
I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be somewhere else entirely. I was supposed to be at a brand new theatre, on opening night. But turns out booking opening nights at brand new theatres are risky things to book for, and now I have the evening free.
Now, usually this would be a cause of panic. I’d be scrolling through TodayTix, my thumb a blur as I try to find a West End theatre that I both haven’t been to, and can afford to buy a last minute ticket to. With just over five months to go before the final countdown, I can’t afford to take Saturday nights off. No way. Ain’t no time left for that nonsense. I’m going to the theatre, dammit.
But I vaguely remembered getting annoyed at the theatre not do long ago. Annoyed because for the third time, they’d put up a marathon-worthy show on their website, with so little notice I’d already booked myself in for that evening.
I checked back.
Yup. There is was. On for one night only. A play. And there were still tickets available.
Hello, Theatre Peckham! Despite all your best efforts, not programming anything of any use, and then dumping things online with next to no advance notice, I’m going to get you checked off my list.
My feelings of smugness last exactly as long as it takes me to stick in their postcode into the TFL Journey Planner.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Peckham might as well be in the Lake District for all the transport links it has. Looks like I’ll be walking half-way across London to get to this one.
But being the brave, intrepid, explorer that I am, I set off. Battling against cancelled Thameslink trains and walking for miles and miles to fall down at their door.
Turns out, the Theatre Peckham’s laissez-faire attitude to getting shows on sale doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to pull in an audience. This place is packed. There’s a small courtyard outside of the main door, and it’s filled with happy-looking people having drinks and enjoying the sun. Inside, it’s even busier. The queue for the bar stretches out from one side of the foyer to the other, echoing the line of bunting strung up overhead.
I inch my way around the walls, trying to find somewhere where I’m not in everyone’s way. It’s tricky. There are people waiting at the box office. People waiting for the loos. People waiting beside the entrance to the theatre. People waiting for friends and drinks and the doors to open.
This place has clearly set itself out to be a community hub and it's doing it well. There’s a piano on one side, a dress up corner on the other, and even a casting opportunity notice board. No wonder they can fill a theatre with only a few days' notice.
I find a small space near a pillar and tuck myself in.
At least I don’t have to get involved with any of that. I have an e-ticket. It says right here in the confirmation email “use your smartphone to display the .pdf ticket on-screen so that the person on the door can examine and check its authenticity.” Not sure how they go about that, but I’m hoping there’s a beeper. I hate e-tickets, but I love a ticket beeper.
It’s warm in here. It’s a bit Hardwicke Hall (“more window than wall”) and the sun is blazing through the glass, heating us up like a bunch of rapidly ripening tomatoes.
Someone standing near me leans back against the pillar and fans herself.
I stare at her. That fan looks surprisingly like an admission pass.
I should have known better. Ticket confirmations are nonsense emails. You should never trust a word they say. There’s not going to be a ticket beeper. And no one is going to check the authenticity. They might have fancy pdfs to send out, but that doesn’t stop them from handing out laminated scraps of logoed up paper like all the rest of the old school venues.
I join the queue for the box office.
“The surname is Smiles,” I tell the lady behind the counter when I finally get to the front of the queue.
“Smiles?” I say, wondering if I had been mistaken after all, and the admission token had been nothing more than a trick of the dazzeling light. But no, there they are. I can see them. Piled up neatly next to her mouse. I press on. “S. M. I. L. E. S. Smiles? That’s the surname?”
She looks it up. “Just one?” she asks.
She hands me a token. It’s white, laminated, with the Theatre Peckham logo, and is in no way an e-ticket.
I return to my little corner near the pillar, and soon find myself part of the queue to get in without the bother of moving.
A young man in a Theatre Peckham branded top makes his way down to queue, talking to everyone in turn.
“Sorry?” I ask when he gets to me. I shade me eyes against the sun still forcing its way through those massive windows.
“You don’t mind being filmed?” he repeats.
“Oh…” Do I mind being filmed?I mean… the answer is: yes. I do. But I’m not sure I mind enough to cause a fuss. “No,” I tell him.
He moves on, asking his question all the way down to the end of the queue.
I’m not sure how I feel about this direct approach. On the one hand it’s great that he’s making sure everyone going through the door knows that there’s going to be a camera in there, but on the other, it does rather put you on the spot more than a sign ever would.
I make a mental note to pick a seat at the back.
I check my phone.
It’s 7.35pm. The doors still aren’t open.
Oh well. At least it’s a short play.
Or is it? I can’t remember. But it surely must be. In this run up to Edinburgh, everything seems to be coming in at under an hour.
I go to the Theatre Peckham website and look for the show we’re queueing for, Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and scroll down.
2 hours plus interval.
2 hours plus interval. What does that mean? How long is an interval? It doesn’t say. It could be five minutes or thirty or anything in between.
It’s 7.38pm and we still haven’t gone in.
Plus an interval of unknown length.
And then the long trek back to Finchley.
I’m not getting home before midnight, am I?
The usher is back. He slips through the queue to reach a lady a few places ahead of me. “Don’t forget to sit at the top, yeah?” he says. “The back of the back of the tip of the top.”
She frowns at him. “Why?”
“Because you don’t want to be filmed, yeah?”
Her face clears and she nods. Back of the back of the tip of the top. She’s got it.
7.43pm. The doors have opened. We’re going in.
Gosh. It’s quite nice in here. A balcony circling three sides. A floor level stage.
There’s multi-coloured upholstery across the seating, which I notice are those flip-down benches which require you to coordinate the sitting down process with your neighbour.
I can see what the usher meant by the back of the back and the tip of the top.
There are a few rows right at the back that are cordoned off by a railing. I suppose they’re supposed to be considered part of the balcony, but really they look like an extension of the stalls with a wall to keep back the riffraff.
I can see the camera. It’s just there, in front of the first row.
Hopefully it won’t see me back here.
Its presence doesn’t seem to have put many people off though. The front row fills up fast. As do the second and third row.
As the seats gradually fill up, spaces gradually disappearing as newcomers are forced to go further back, I can see why. The rake… isn’t great. It’s disappointingly bad. Especially for such a new theatre. I always wonder about this. Do theatres not test the rake before opening to the public? Do they not consider that someone sitting in their seats might actually like to see what is happening on stage? It always makes me think they are just gambling on them never selling enough tickets for it to matter. And in the event of them having a hit show, for the audience to be so desperate to see it, they won’t care if their view is a little obstructed by the person in front.
It’s nearly ten to eight now. And we still haven’t started.
I suppose that says it all. Bollocks to the audience. There’ll be a show. At some point. And they’ll get to see it. Most of it, anyway. Whatever.
We’re starting now. At last.
Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.
All time travel and the voice of god and returning to the scene of the crime and prophets and machetes and rhyme.
A bit poetic. A bit dance theatre. A bit strange.
A bit… dull.
I mean, it’s fine. Well written. Well performed. All that.
But it isn’t doing the business for me.
Too many characters. Too much stuff going on. Too long. Too drawn out.
I’m sure the twin timelines will come together at some point, but right now… eh.
But you know, this play wasn’t created for the likes of me. And the rest of the audience seem to be loving it. Laughing at what I presume are the right bits.
The air conditioning is good though. A bit too good. It’s freezing. But I’m not complaining. Better too cold than too warm. I’m just waiting to wriggle back into my jacket as soon as the interval hits.
Just as I’m rubbing my arms to get some warmth back into them, the stage light extinguishes, plunging into darkness. The man sitting next to me lifts his hands, ready to clap. But he holds back. Is it the interval?
The darkness extends a fraction too long.
The house lights should be coming up by now.
But they don’t.
Someone at the front risks a clap, and we all follow their lead.
The house lights go up. As one, the audience gets to their feet and disappears to the bar. I reach under my seat and grab my jacket, snuggling down into its woollen warmth.
As everyone begins to filter back, they come laden with drinks and snacks. One person appears to have popped out to the shops, and his hands are full of crisps. Around five packets if I’ve counted correctly. Not quite the Dairylea Dunker of snack masters that I saw at the Stockwell Playhouse, but he’s certainly up there.
He opens up the first pack, and starts munching, tipping out the last of the crumbs just as the house lights descend for the second half.
I pull my jacket tight around me and shiver through the rest of the play, trying to enjoy the frigid chill of the auditorium, and being annoyed with myself for not appreciating the cold as much as I should.
At the end, there's a standing ovation. A little one. And not undeserved. Those actors put in the work. Jumping between characters with little more than the unzipping of a jacket and putting on of a hat.
Oh well. Time to start the long walk to Oval. There's no way I'm risking the Thameslink again.
In the foyer, I turn around to have another look. Taking in the piano, the bunting, the reading nook with it’s chair and accompanying bookshelf.
I doubt I'll be back. Not until Peckham gets a tube station anyway.