Red Mask, Gold Shoes

Well, this is a first. A theatre without a website. I honestly didn't think that was possible. Not in this year of 2019.

I thought not having online booking was bad enough. I've grumbled and moaned about having to email venues in order to reserve tickets. But this is the first one that I've come across that doesn't even have a landing page floating around on the ethernet with an address or something.

Based on the online-evidence, you'd think this place doesn't exist. Except I, for a fact, know that it does. Firstly, because it has a listing on offwestend.com, which in itself doesn't mean much. There are plenty of places on that site that don't exist, and haven't existed for a good many years. But thankfully I have a secondly. And that secondly is that I've had this place mentioned to me by a friend. Well, I say mentioned, but it was mainly her trying to convince me that I don't need to go. "It's small," she insisted, in a conversation that may or may not have been part of an intervention. "Really small. Max, I honestly don't think it counts."

Well, more fool her because it does count.

How does one buy tickets from a venue that is doing it's best to pretend not to exist though? That truly is a conundrum.

I considered going in person. It's only a short walk from my current base in Hammersmith. But the problem with that, is that it actually involves going somewhere. And despite the whole concept of this blog, I don't actually like going places.

But go places I must. All the way to Barons Court, to the Curtains Up pub, where a theatre is apparently lurking somewhere within.

I stand outside, on the opposite pavement, trying very hard not to question the plurality of the curtains.

Turns out, I don’t have to worry about getting a ticket. After a bit of Googling, I managed to find an Eventbrite listing for tonight’s show, and so git myself booked in. I check the details. It’s a 7.15pm start time.

I have a few minutes. It doesn’t do to be too early at these things.

Especially as I am highly suspect about that timing. Pub theatres don’t start their plays at 7.15pm. They just don’t. The standard London theatre time of 7.30pm? Sure. 7.45pm? Even better. 8pm? Or 9pm even? Sometimes. But 7.15? No. Never.

Either this place has a bedtime curfew, or they are sick of audience members rocking up half-way through the first act.

People sit around outside, having a drink and a cigarette. A grumpy looking pug sniffs around under a table.

I carry on walking.

I’ve told you before about this intuitive sense that I’ve developed on the marathon. I’ve visited so many theatres this year, I can tell just by looking at a place where I need to go and what I need to do.

And my intuition is telling me that I need to keep on walking.

Not too far. Just around the corner. And yes, there it is. A small side door set into the wall. And above it, on a small wooden plaque, a sign: Barons Court Theatre.

So, it really does exist.

I go in.

There’s a staircase leading down.

Another small plaque, this one affixed to a low lintel whose purpose seems to be solely to knock people on the head, says: Theatre Exit.

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A basement pub theatre. That’s unusual. Haven’t come across many of those so far. Like first wives, pub theatres are usually locked away in the attic.

I start to stroll down, but I spot something. Another sign. This one slightly above the first. On paper, sellotaped to the ceiling. “STOP!” I stop. “No entry to the theatre this way.”

Oh.

Okay.

Um.

I go back up to the landing and stand awkwardly, not knowing what to do.

So much for intuition.

The door at the top of the stairs opens, and someone comes out.

Over their shoulder I see the gleaming warmth of the pub beyond.

I suppose I should probably go in there.

It’s a nice pub. Velvety armchairs and spotlights on the walls showing off artwork. Amongst them is a painting of Salvador Dali, gazing out from the black frame, a fried egg sliding off his moustache.

I ignore all that, because there’s a door just opposite, and it’s marked up as being the way to the “Theatre & Toilets.” My intuition is back in business.

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Through the door. Down a corridor. Following an arrow which once again points out the way to: Theatre & Toilets. And down a staircase decorated with a line-up of headshots. I stop again. The arrow here is only pointing the way to the Gents. I don’t want the Gents. I want the theatre.

I try to turn around, but there is a man (perhaps even a Gent) behind me.

“Is this the way to the theatre?” I ask, more to explain my lack of movement on the stairs than to get his input.

“Sorry. It’s my first time here,” he says.

I let him pass, watching him disappear around a corner.

I don’t get that far. I find another door. It says Theatre on it. That’s good.

Except it’s closed. And has a lock on it. Which is less good.

I dither, trying to decide what I should do.

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Exactly on cue, the door opens.

“Are you here for the play?” asks the man as I jump aside to give him room.

“Yeah… umm… where’s the box office?”

“It’s just through here,” he says, pointing behind him. “With the theatre.”

But he doesn’t move aside, and we just end up standing there, staring at each other.

“Shall I go back upstairs then?” I ask, feeling its on me to break the stalemate.

“No, the theatre is here,” he says. “And the box office,” he adds, just in case I didn’t get it.

“Is it open yet?”

“No.”

“Okay…”

“We’ll let you know…”

“Right.”

Again, the awkward silence.

I look around. There isn’t much room down here. And I don’t know about you, but hanging around outside the men’s loos is not my idea of a quality evening.

“I’ll just go back upstairs then,” I tell him.

He accepts that, and we both trudge our way back up the steps, past the headshots, towards the bar.

Back in the pub, I find an empty table and plonk myself down into one of the armchairs. It’s very comfortable. I find myself leaning back, my body sinking into the chair’s sweet embrace. It’s been a long day.

Before I fall asleep, I check the time.

Huh. So much for a 7.15pm start time. I just knew that was all nonsense.

A glamourous-looking young woman, with a tiny jacket and metallic stiletos comes in. She looks around, pauses to read the sign over the door, and then walks through to the corridor. I watch her. She strides past the Ladies, turns on her stilleto, and then slowly makes her way down the stairs.

I wait.

A few minutes later she's back.

Right then. The house isn't quite open yet.

I keep an eye on the flow of people.

Mostly men, jouneying to the Gents.

I try to remember them, to see if they come back. But they're all wearing idential grey suits and I can't tell any of them apart.

Eventually the woman with the golden shoes returns, and tries her luck once more.

This time, she does not come back.

I check the time. It's a few minutes off 7.30. I should probably go see what's happening.

From the top of the steps I can see that the door to the theatre is now propped open.

Inside, rows of seating crowd in close on one side. On the other is a small hutch, where the box officer lives.

I give him my name.

"You paid, right?"

I did indeed.

He notes down my name on his clipboard. "Eventbrite?"

"Yes?"

"Smiles," he says slowly as he writes, adding the bracketed word "(PAID)" after my surname.

He points to the bank of seating behind me.

"This side is probably best," he advises.

Well, I'm always one to follow advice.

There are three rows of seating here. The first one is completly empty. I'm not a fan of the front row at the best of times, and sitting alone in a tiny pub theatre is not about to change things for me. The second row looks fairly crowded. I dismiss that one too. The third and last row has one person in it. The glamorous lady with the golden footwear.

It's fate.

"Is anyone sitting on the end there?" I ask her, indicating the seats on the other side of her.

"Err... no?" she says, sounding confused. Although, maybe she's just clocked that there was someone staring at her shoes upstairs and now she's panicking.

"Do you mind?"

She gets up and let's me pass, and I tuck myself away at the far end of the row, right up against the wall of the tech box. It's the best I can do. But there's still only one seat between us.

Oh well. Guess I'm just a stalker now.

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I distract myself from this startling self-realisation by looking around.

The stage is set amongst wide pillars, holding up a curved ceiling. The seating is on three sides. It's gloomy and creepy and I think I kind of love it. It's the sort of place you'd love to watch an Edgar Allan Poe story being performed. Which is handy. Because I'm here for The Masque of the Red Death.

So, that worked out well.

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A man comes in and pauses at the box office, picking up a piece of paper from the tiny counter.

It's a freesheet.

I'd completly missed them.

"Are these free?" he asks the box officer.

Yup. Turns out that they are completly free.

He grabs a handfull and turns to us. "Programme? Would you like a programme?" he says, handing them out.

My glamorous neighbour takes one but doesn't hand it down.

She's probably still weirded out by me. Which, you know: fair.

"Would you...?" she says, turning to me and holding it out.

Oh. Well, yes, I would. I take it from her and hold it up to do the classic blogger-freesheet photoshoot. And then lay it carefully balanced ontop of the flip-seat between us. Just in case she wants it back. I'm not entirely convinced her generosity wasn't a loan. I wouldn't be handing over no freesheets to random strangers who stare at my shoes. That's for sure.

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It's too dark to read it now anyway.

The house lights have extinguished.

It's 7.33pm.

The box officer switches off the light on his counter.

From the hallway outside I hear a voice. "I'm just going to the toilet, then we'll start."

We sit, waiting in the darkness.

A group comes in. They seem to know the people in the second row. "One more missing," they explain a front of houser reunites the friends.

"One more? Well, we need to start, but I'll be around!"

He goes over to the stage and welcomes us. "There are a few house rules," he explains. "The fire exit is over there," he says, pointing. "Please turn your phones onto silent. This performance contains fog and strobing, so... err... I hope that doesn't bother anyone."

It's time for the play to start.

It's... well, to be honest I don't know what it is. I'm lost. We seem to be at the party of a rather intense dominatrix. No one can leave becayse there is some really disgusting plague going on outside. The Red Death of the title. It all sounds rather icky and seems to involve sweating blood. Although, if it's a choice between that and having to spend the rest of my life cooped up with a woman who rents out her servants to the type of friends who think it's okay to send their playthings off for gender-realignment surgury and full-body tattoos, force others to recite poetry, and wear nude shoes with black tights... well, I think I'd take my chances.

It's super weird. Very Poe. Bit long. Only an hour, but even so... too much standing around in the pretext of creating atmosphere.

Still, I get a nice walk home, and am in bed by ten. So, I'd call that a success of an evening.

The fact that I spend the next three hours searching the web for golden high heels is neither here nor there.

Faith, Hope & Cold Chips

“I’m just waiting for a friend,” I tell the stage door keepers at the National, feeling a heady mixture of swishified fanciness and gnawing anxiety that they probably think I’m after an autograph or something.

I don’t know what it is about stage doors that put me on edge. It’s not like I don’t use the one at my work every single day. But still, there’s something about them. And that look the keepers give you. Ever so slightly suspicious and disapproving, while at the same time being unfailingly polite. A look borne of years of putting up with fangirls with no appreciation of crowd control. And actors. They’re the worst.

Thankfully just as I’m starting to shuffle nervously, Nicki appears.

“Shall we pick up the tickets?” she asks. “Or get a drink first?”

“Pick up the tickets? It’s only next door…”

We’re seeing Faith Hope & Charity at the Dorfman tonight. The smallest theatre space this place has to offer, and my final visit of the marathon to this our National Theatre, and, as it happens, only next door.

I let Nicki lead the way, back outside and over to the Dorfman entrance. On its private concrete terrace, a little raised from the quiet road round the back of the building.

The foyer is empty.

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Just a few lone figures sit hunched at the long tables.

Behind the bar, a couple of front of housers busy themselves setting up in preparation for the crowds that will be descending on them soon enough.

Nicki goes over to the small box office that takes up the other end of the counter to the bar. She gives her name, gets our tickets, and then asks what I want to do.

“I can show you around?” she offers. “I can take you up to the walkway that looks down on where they make all the sets.”

Well, obviously I’m up for that. It’s not every day that you get a private tour. And I love all that scenery shit.

She takes me upstairs, dropping facts with every step as we go through to the backstage walkway.

“That’s the Drum Road,” she says, pointing down over the edge to a pathway cluttered with boxes and props and sinks and ladders and trunks. “It’s called that because the Drum is over there.”

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“I fucking love the Drum revolve,” I tell her. That’s no exaggeration. I really love the Drum revolve. Honestly, a show in the Olivier Theatre that doesn’t make use of that rotating symphony of hydraulics is a waste, and everyone should be ashamed of themselves for letting it happen.

We peer down, watching tiny figures in distant corners do busy and important things.

“Shall we go to the Green Room?” Nicki suggests, as she runs out of stories to tell me about this part of the theatre.

She sure can!

We head back out onto the slim terrace hugging the outside of the building and walk around.

I stop to take a photo as she leads me into a cosy bar, covered in show posters and faerie lights.

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The bar is closed. But we carry on, out into a notice-board heavy corridor and then… the staff canteen.

It smells… really good.

“Do you want to eat here?” Nicki offers, but her heart isn’t in it. This is where she has lunch everyday. “Or we could go to Burgerworks and get chips or something?”

I look at her. “You really want chips, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I really want chips.”

“Then let’s get chips then!”

So we do. Back downstairs, round the building, and into the pop-up restaurant currently living next to the National’s Understudy Bar.

It’s still early. Barely half past six. And there’s no queue.

Nicki orders mac and cheese and bacon bites. And chips. I lob in a programme. They’re all on display. On the counter. Very handy.

"What do you think of the programme?" Nicki asks. "I want to hear your proffesional opinon."

"They look very sophisticated now," I say, turning over the matt-covered booklet in my hand. Gone are the shiny slim versions, with the poster artwork printed on the front. Now they look a good deal more arty. Very small press chic. "But they've changed the size. That's going to take me years to get over. My collection's all over the place now."

With a flash of Nicki’s staff lanyard, we get a discount. But don’t worry. Obvs I’m paying.

With one of those flashy things in hand, we go round the corner to the Understudy bar and get drinks sorted.

“Oh, we could have ordered food in here…” says Nicki, spotting the Burgerworks menu over the bar.

Honestly. Can’t get the staff these days.

Still, another flash of the lanyard, and we’re off with our slightly-more-reasonable-priced drinks, off to find a spot at one of the long tables outside.

The chill has set in, and the acres of tables that had been packed mere days ago, are now empty. We find one of the few dry ones just as the flashy thing starts flashing, and Nicki goes off to collect the food.

She comes back laden with cardboard trays of fried stuff, and bottles of ketchup and sriracha tucked under each arm. Honestly, it’s so nice grabbing dinner with someone who understands your condiment needs.

I'm gonna be real now. The chips are disappointing. And a bit cold. But the G&T is doing wonders, and the Cinnamon Scrolls I brought with me from Crosstown Doughnuts are going down a treat.

Fully carbed up, we waddle our way back to the Dorfman,

It's packed now, the little foyer a hive of buzzing gossip.

Nicki goes over to the bar to swap her pint glass for one of the National fancy reusable plastic glasses. My drink is long gone, so I just try to stay out of everyone's way until she gets back.

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Right. Time to go in.

Good thing we have Nicki's access to house seats because I'm not a fan of the Dorfman sight-lines. Those slip seats in the upper levels are outrageously overpriced, and I really can't get over the fact that someone signed off such restricted view seating in a new-built venue.

Three levels. Squashed into what is supposed to be the National's studio space. Unlucky enough to be sitting on the sides, and you'll find yourself having the lean forward every time a cast member crosses the half-way point on the stage below you.

Even from the central stalls, things aren't great. As I sit down, I find myself staring straight into the back of the head belonging to the person sitting in front of me. The seats aren't off-set at all. And the rake is miserable.

Honestly, some designers shouldn't be allowed near theatres.

Still, the set's a bit good. There's all sorts of doors and corridors and hatches and courtyards and things going on.

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"There's an actor!" I say to Nicki as I spot Cecilia Noble dropping a bag-for-life on the counter and starting on the business of prepping the half-hidden kitchen.

The lights dim.

The play begins.

We're in some sort of community hall. Lunch is being served. And later... there'll be choir practise.

It's miserable. And heartwarming. And painful. And life-affirming. All at once.

Boom!

We're plunged into darkness, surrounded by a whirlwind of noise.

Boom!

Lights are back up.

The scene has changed. We've shifted forward a few hours.

My heart is thumping. It takes a good few minutes for me to realign to the gentle torture of Alexander Zeldin's play.

A few more trips to lights-off-land later, we make it to the interval.

"What do you think?" asks Nicki as we shuffle our way out to the foyer.

"I'm not sure about those overdramatic blackouts," I tell her. "They don't really fit in with anything else."

The foyer is filled with chatter. Mostly about the play.

Nicki points someone out to me. A playwright.

"Oh my god, are you serious?" I say, when she tells me who he is. "He looks like, really young." It's true. He does. Not what I was picturing at all. "Shall we go over and tell him how much we love him?"

"No!" says Nicki looking shocked. "I can't. I have to work with him soon."

Ah yes. She's got a reputation to look after now. "Okay, I'll go over and tell him I totally stan him."

"If you want..." She watches me expectantly as I fail to move.

He... looks busy. He's talking to people.

I'll tell him how much I adore his work next time.

Time to go back in. And you just know things are going to get worse for these gentle souls, who just want to have a hot meal together, and maybe sing a few songs.

Actors come and sit in the front row, taking up free seats amongst the audience.

Not really sure why that's happening. There are plenty of chairs onstage. Like the blackouts, whatever the director's reasoning for this is, it's lost on me. The people in the front row seem to be enjoying it though, twisting around in their seats to get a proper look at their new neighbours.

The characters limp sadly through to the end. Broken. Beaten down. But not yet defeated.

And I'm left with the lingering feeling that I really shouldn't be complaining about cold chips.

"Did you see the vomit?" asks Nicki as we make away down the Southbank to catch the tube.

"No!" I'm genuinely upset about this. I heard the vomit. I saw Susan Lynch's back heave as the vomit was happening. But there was a bloody great head blocking my view of the actual vomit.

My stomach gurgles as it does it's best to get through my carb-travaganza.

Oh well. Might get my own personal vomit display at this rate. Cold chips and all.

Friendly Fire

On my last visit to the Park Theatre I promised myself I’d be back before the end of the summer in order to soak up that sweet, sweet air conditioning. 

It’s now September, and while we haven’t quite completed the descent into fall, it’s definitely on the way, so I better get a shift on. 

I make my way over to Finsbury Park, stopping just long enough on Clifton Terrace to take a photo of the outside of the theatre and almost get run over by a double decker. 

Inside it’s bright and buzzing and the woman on the box office gives me a great big smile as I go over and give me name. 

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“Huh, that’s strange,” she says, rummaging around in the ticket box and clearly not finding anything. 

I begin to panic, worrying that I booked the matinee or something equally stupid. 

Seitching to the evening won’t be easy. It’s all sold out.

“Shall I get my confirmation email up?” I ask, pulling out my phone. The email is already loaded behind my lock screen, because you know, I like to be prepared. It’s the anxious person in me. 

“These items can be picked up from Box Office. Warheads on Saturday 07 September 2019 at 19.45 in Park90.” 

It is Saturday 7 September. I didn’t make a mistake. For once. 

The box officer looks at her computer screen and frowns. “It says it’s already printed,” she says, sounding a mite confused. I can’t blame her. I’m a mite confused too. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do a print-at-home thingy, for one because I hate that shit, but also because I don’t have a printer. 

“Ah ha!” says the box officer. “Here you go. It’s with a programme!” 

Oh yeah! I’d forgotten I’d preordered one of those. She hands me the programme with the ticket slotted over the top. 

“The one time I try and be efficient,” I sigh. 

“That’s all on me,” the box officer says. 

“I just knew I wouldn’t have change!” I try and explain. “Never again. I promise you.” 

“I really appreciate you preordering a programme,” she assures me, and I realise that my attempts to good-naturedly take the blame on this issue are making me sound like an arse. 

I better get out of here. 

I scuttle off up the stairs and follow the signs to Park90, the smaller of the two Park spaces. 

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Up onto the landing, through a door, and down a long, red, corridor. 

A front of houser rushes the other way. 

“There you go,” he calls at me as we pass. “That way. Ushers will sort you out.” 

Well, alright then. 

At the end of the corridor, a ticket checker stands guard on the door. I show my ticket. She stares at it. The seconds tick past. I wonder if I’m supposed to do something at this point. Provide some sort of supplementary information. Perhaps I should get out the programme to show her. But whatever she was looking for, she seems to find it, and waves me through. 

The Park90 is a black box space, set up in traverse for tonight’s performance. I look around, trying to work out where I want to sit. Now usually in unreserved seating, I like to go for the end of the third row, but here there are two third rows and I need to decide what view of the stage I want. Throw in the fact that the third row is actually the back row (on both sides) and I’ve got all kinds of thinking to do before I sit down. As I try and process all this, I spot something large and fluffy down by my feet. 

It’s a dog. 

A very beautiful dog. 

An Alsatian. 

Or at least, I think it’s an Alsatian. It’s hard to tell. It’s really dark in here. 

Whatever breed, it’s definitely a dog, and they are lying down quite contentedly next to the end of the front row, beside their master. 

Well, that throws all my cogs back into a whirr because now I have to add in the extra dog-based element into my thought-processes. Do I want to sit near the dog? I do, of course, want that. But I also want to be able to see the dog, which would mean selecting a seat on the opposite side. 

I look back down at the dog. 

They are wearing a service dog harness. 

That settles it. 

I pick my way over to the other side of the stage. 

I don’t want to be near the dog, because being near the dog will mean I’ll be tempted to pet the dog, and I’m fairly certain you’re not meant to pet service dogs while they’re on duty. So I’m going to find a place where I can stare at them adoringly every time the play gets dull. 

Third row. At the end. 

No, wait. That’s too far away. 

Third row. In the middle. 

Perfect. 

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I get out my programme, but it’s far too dark to read in here. 

So dark that people have to lift their hands to wave as friends come through the door, lest these newcomers end up sitting next to a stranger. 

The front of houser I’d met in the corridor directs people around, helping them locate their plus ones, and filling in the gaps. It mat be a sold out show, but by the looks if it, some audience members must have got stuck in the bar, as there’s a big chunk of empty seats still going spare when the doors are closed. 

The blokes next to me sure spent a good deal of time there. 

They came in carrying beers, but I don’t think it’s their first round of the night. 

They are very actively not watching the play. 

One gets out his phone, flicking between apps while this tale of men broken by combat plays out mere feet away from us. 

He shifts seats, moving away from me to whisper something very loudly to his mates before sliding back again. I wonder if he too is trying to get a good view of the dog. 

I look over. The dog is sitting up. They don’t look overly keen about the whole combat thing either. As our soldiers shout and throw themselves across the tiny stage, the dog sits up, backing away towards the door. 

The usher leans down to stroke the top of the dog’s head. 

The owner looks back, but doesn’t say anything. 

Unlike my drunk friends in the back row who are only pausing in their conversation long enough to loudly exclaim at every plot point. Well, two of the friends. The third one buries his head in his hands, clearly hoping one of the explosives will blow a sink-hole into the earth for him to crawl into. Occasionally he lifts his head long enough to attempt to shush them, but these two lads are way too far gone to notice. 

And way too gone for anyone else not to notice. 

Even the actors. 

Taz Skylar rounds on them as Craig Fairbrass’ Captain flashes his torch in their direction. 

“If you fuckers don’t stop talking,” shouts Skylar, fully in character as a soldier in the depths of a PTSD-caused breakdown. 

They try to say something but Skylar isn’t having it. “You fat fuck, shut up!” 

There’s a cheer from the other side. 

The lads lapse into silence. 

For a few seconds. 

My neighbour leans over to his mate to say something. 

Joseph Connolly, playing the flatmate, and looking for all the world like he’s just found dishes in the sink for the third day running, gets up, leaning right into our row and narrowing his eyes at the talkers. “You’d better leave,” he says. 

The third friend sinks low, hands covering the top of his head as if the actors’ words were live ammunition. 

I look over at the usher. She’s over on the other side, grinning at the dog and rubbing his ears. They both look very happy. 

But we all make it through to the end of the play. 

A front of houser hands us leaflets on our way out. They have stats about the links between military service and homelessness on them. It’s shocking and depressing and I don’t know what to do with it other than shove it in my pocket to think about later. 

“I have never been so embarrassed in all my life,” says someone as we file out down the red corridor. 

“I’m going to have words with them,” a young woman says darkly. Because that’s the thing. They all knew each other. The cast. And half the audience. It was the last performance in the run. And all those threats of this-is-your-last-chance-to-see-me had paid off. 

At least they turned up. 

If those empty seats were any indication, at least one contingent never made it out of the bar. 

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Hello!

I'm back at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre this evening. Turns out they have another venue.

I actually already knew this. When I was there last time, and we were led off to the small room in another building, I had definite memories of having gone to the Bernie Grant before, and it not involving trans-courtyard travel.

But I didn't mention it, because I am a strong believer in ignoring things until they go away.

Turns out these beliefs are unfounded though, and the actual theatre at the Bernie wasn't going away no matter how long I looked in the other direction.

Which I find very rude of it, but what can you do.

Still, the show should be good. My friend Helen went to see it the last time it was doing the rounds, and I remembered her telling me that she not only enjoyed it, but it lead to having thoughts. I'm not sure I have the brain-space for thoughts right now, but I'm willing to give it a go.

So, back in Seven Sisters I am, and into the main building.

It looks busy tonight. There are people hanging out in the courtyard and there's a queue at the bar.

I'm going in the other direction though. Towards the box office.

There's someone already there. A woman looking at one the flyer for tonight's show.

"It's a play," explains the box officer.

"When does it start?"

"At 7.30. It's 80 minutes without an interval," she says, getting straight to the most important selling point.

But this woman doesn't seem convinced. "Let me ask..." she says, wandering off.

Hmm. Well, I'm sold. 80 minutes no interval? The best damn type of play there is.

"Hello!" says the box officer.

I bounce over to the counter. "Hi! The surname's Smiles?"

"What's the first name?"

I give it and a second later she's handing me my ticket.

But I'm not paying attention. I just spotted something on the counter. A pile of somethings.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask, picking up one of the programmes. There's no price indicated, but you can never be sure with these things.

"Of course!" she says.

So I do.

I take my prize out to the courtyard to have a look.

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It's a freesheet. Just credits and biogs. But it's very nicely printed, and, well... it's free. So I ain't complaining.

"There's no signage!" someone cries out.

I look over. A lady sitting on a shiny mobility scooter is complaining to a front of houser.

He tries to calmly give her directions, but she doesn't look very happy.

"But you didn't tell us this before! And there are no signs!"

She moves off and the front of houser trots after her, giving directions with big hand movements that suggest a very long journey.

I go back to my fancy freesheet.

Looks like they're turning Black Men Walking into a TV show. So that's exciting.

More people keep on turning up. This is clearly the place to be tonight.

A bloke standing near me is talking about the protests.

"Yeah... there were a few thousand," he says. "But Boris just didn't give us enough notice. You need three weeks to plan something like that properly. Organise coaches to get people down from the north and all that."

Yeah, I can't imagine why Boris didn't give three weeks' notice for the protesters to organise themselves.

I look around, through the glass walls of the Bernie Grant. A queue is forming.

I better get myself in it.

The entrance to the theatre must be down the other end, becuse the queue is going right past the box office, in front of the main entrance, and down towards the bar, neatly blocking off everything of importance.

Newcomers squeeze through us to pick up there tickets, and then squeeze through us again to get down to the end of the queue.

As set ups go, it's not great.

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Someone with a radio makes a noble attempt to move us. "Over this way please," he says, flapping his hands to indicate that we should press back against the doors.

The lady with the scooter inches herself through.

We all shuffle dutifully out if the way.

The house opens, and the queue begins to move.

Slowly.

As I approach the front, I begin to see why.

People hand over their ticket reams, still attached to the booking info and receipt, forcing the usher to unfold and refold them to get to the ticket section.

I have mine all prepped and ready to go. The receipts and whatnot torn off and stowed in my bag. It has never occured to me up until this point that this wasn't standard behaviour.

But my new-found oddness isn't my big concern right now. Last time I was here, we had our tickets taken from us, and never returend. As if they were personalised admission passes and not perfectly normal paper tickets. I keep a close eye on the front of houser, making sure he hands the tickets back. He does. Thank the theatre gods.

It's my turn.

I had my ticket, and only my ticket, over.

"Fantastic!" he says, handing it back and I get that glow satisfaction of having done something right. I look around smugly. This is how you do it, everyone! Tear those tickets! Don't be handing over any useless ticket-stock. The ushers don't need to be knowing your address.

Through a door and into a dark corridor we go.

There's someone already on stage. A young woman. Gazing out into the distance. That's Dorcas Sebuyange, according to the freesheet.

And yes, this is the place I remember. This is the theatre. Floor level stage, with a big bank of seating rising off from it.

I start climbing. An usher blocks off the steps, guiding us to fill the rows from the front. "Just fill up this row," she orders, waving us in. "All the way down, please."

"Can we sit further back?" asks the lady standing behind me.

The usher considers this for a moment, then agrees, stepping out of the way so that they can pass.

There are those double flip-down seats, and no one wants to share, so that even with the ushers best efforts, there are gaps all over the place.

As the rows fill up, new arrivers have the squeeze through in order to find spare spots.

I shift down to allow a couple to sit next to each other.

The woman doesn't look impressed. She peers over my shoulder and points to a spare bench in the middle. "Is anyone sitting there?" she asks, ignoring the twin jackets that are very obviously saving a spot.

"Yeah, sorry," comes the reply.

With an irritated sigh, she takes the clearly inferior bench next to me.

The house lights dim.

The play starts.

We're in Yorkshire. A group of black men are meeting up for their monthly walk.

I do enjoy a play that fulfills the promises made in its title.

And I can see why Helen liked it.

As the men very pointedly say hello to every person they pass, I'm reminded of the cliff walk I went on with some friends last year. Helen (I don't need to remind you who she is, do I? She’s a blog regular) spent the entire nine-odd mile walk wishing everyone we encountered a cheery good morning, and grinning herself silly at their stilted and awkward replies. It was the first time I'd witnessed her style of aggressive politeness in action, and I've been in slightly terrified admiration ever since.

And yes. There are thoughts. Little thoughts. That fit in my head.

"Sorry," says the bloke sitting a few places down from me.

He wants out.

And there isn't room to escape.

We all twist around in our seats, shifting out knees to one side so that he can crab-walk along the row and out.

An usher follows him out the door.

A few minutes later, the play ends.

So that was pointless.

On the way out, I decide to walk. Not all the way to Hammersmith, that would take all night. But to Turnpike Lane. Which is quite far enough.

I've always been a walker-thinker. My feet are connected straight to my brain.

And as I dart across roads, and make my way around a scary-looking park, small thoughts turn into medium-sized thoughts. And by the time I get off the tube in Hammersmith, the medium thoughts have grown into big thoughts, and they're crowding out my brain. All I can think about it the search for connection to the landscape that surrounds us, to the history that lies beneath our feet. Of staking a claim to the place we call home. Of aggressive politeness.

It's late now. And dark.

A guy passes me on the pavement, talking on his mobile.

He stops. "Bonjour!" he says to me. "Ça va?"

The big thoughts shatter.

"Ça va, fuck off," I very much don't say as I keep on walking.

I think I'll leave the people person bullshit to Helen.

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Theatre Surveillance

I feel a little awkward writing about this venue. You see, I’m currently waiting to hear back from a job here. I usually wouldn’t mention this kind of thing to you, but we’ve built up a fair amount of trust with each other over the past eight months, and I know you won’t tell anyone.

The hiring manager must be in deep deliberations about the whole thing. Usually I hear back within a week or so. But it’s been quite a bit longer than that now. Nearly eight years. So, you know they are really being thorough over there. And I appreciate that. I tried calling a few times. And emailing. And was told the decision-making process was still ongoing. So, I decided to let them get on with it. Hopefully they’ll get back to me soon.

It’s hard though. Because I really want that internship.

Anyway, it’s nice to know that even when they are in the depths of renovation (and hiring) work, The Old Vic still gets the neons out, and has the title of the show blazing across The Cut.

A Very Expensive Poison.

I’m looking forward to this one. I’m hoping to pick up some tips.

There’s scaffolding everywhere, with staff members scurrying around in hi-ves orange waistcoats and radios, but by the looks of it, there’s some sort of box office happening inside the main foyer. I make for the doors, and stop.

Time for a bag check.

The bag checker has a good old rummage around inside before letting me through.

Up the short steps, and in I go.

It looks different in here. Plastic sheeting is draped over the entrance to the stalls, leaving only the “Dare always dare” sign to peek over the top, giving me the feeling that I’ve stepped into the midst of a police investigation into a strip club murder.

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In front of the plastic sheeting, that is very definitely not hiding from view the remains of a battered and bloody body, is the box office. Moved over from its old home on the side, leaving in it’s wake yet more plastic sheeting. Over on the other side, over by the stairs, is the bar. Or at least, what’s counting as the bar in these turbulent times. A small desk. With a stack of paper cups. And presumably, some wine or something squirrelled away somewhere.

“Is anyone waiting?” asks one of the box officers.

I scamper through the crowd towards him. “Yeah. The surname’s Smiles?”

He digs the Ss out of the ticket box and flicks through them. “Yup. Maxine. You’re in the stalls, so head outside and to the right.” He points the way in case I don’t know which way right is. Which for the record, I don’t. It’s much appreciated.

I go back outside and turn right. Or at least, in the direction the nice box officer pointed.

The twin screens up on the wall outside have given up their marketing duties in favour of helping direct people around.

Stall 01-13 & Loos says the one closest to me, with an arrow to point the way. The background is a screaming pink. Or perhaps a shocking pink. A Schiaparelli shocking pink. But when I try to photograph it, it all goes distorted, as if the signal has been intersected. Something to do with my shutter speed. That or some high-level conspiracy from the big wigs at The Old Vic. It’s so hard to tell nowadays.

I go round the side of the building, onto Webber Street.

There’s lots of hoarding round here. A black corridor tacked onto the side of the building. This is where they’re keeping the loos (incidentally, I’m enjoying that The Old Vic calls them loos, instead of toilets. So rare in the world of theatre. The Pleasance does it. And perhaps a couple of other places. But otherwise, it’s toilets all over the place).

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But before all that, hidden under the scaffolding, is a side door.

I think that’s where I’m going.

There are two people standing on the door.

“Can I check your bag?” asks one, dressed in all black.

What? Again?

“I’ll check your ticket,” says the other, sporting an orange waistcoat.

I hold out my bag to the black-jacket with one hand, and my ticket to the orange-waistcoat with the other.

Both are approved and I’m allowed in.

“There’s a bar just on the right,” says orange-waistcoat as I step through the doors.

Up a few steps and yup, there’s a bar on the right. Well, a long table covered with a black cloth and wine bottles.

And a stack of programmes.

I definitely want to get me one of them.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask one of the two women behind the desk.

“Of course!” she says cheerfully. “Cash or card. Whatever’s easier.”

“Brilliant. Card please.” Always best to save cash for those tricky fringe venues.

“I love you purse,” she says as I go about the business of keying in my pin number (don’t. Just don’t. I have a tappy card. Or at least, it’s supposed to be a tappy card. But the tappiness hasn’t worked since the first week I got it. I broke whatever makes a tappy card tap. So I’m stuck with button-pressing until 2020).

“Thank you,” I say, as the payment goes through and I’m four pounds poorer. I give my elephant-purse a friendly pat. “He’s so old, but I refuse to give up on him.” He really is old. Over a decade. Which is alarming for so many reasons.

She laughs. “I have stuff like that. So old it's falling apart. Would you like a receipt?”

I tell her no. I have no use for receipts in my life. Try as I might, I cannot convince my work to let me claim programmes on expenses.

She hands me a programme “Oh wow, love the pink,” I say.

Turns out the Schiaparelli pink of the screens outside weren’t a coincidence. In lieu of artwork, shows get their own colour.

And A Very Expensive Poison has pink.

Personally, I would have gone with green. There’s actually a Pantone colour called Poison Green (16-6444 TPX if you happen to be a Pantone nerd), but it’s a bit too soft to suggest serious deadliness in my opinion. A touch too much blue. I think would have gone for something more like a Pantone 2423C if I was in charge.

“Yeah, the colours are great,” says the programme seller, not unenthusiastically, but still, I suspect she’s not up for a full-on Pantone discussion right now. And anyway, I forgot to bring my swatch book with me today.

I go into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. But not much else. The stalls are almost empty.

I make use of the lack of people by getting out my phone and snapping a few quick pics.

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“Sorry,” says the programme seller stepping up to me. “There’s no photography.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say, surprised. That’s the first time I’ve been stopped in a theatre while the curtains are still down. There’s not a scrap of copyrightable set on display.

“It’s alright,” she says kindly, before retreating back to her place on the wall.

Well, okay. Not sure what to do now.

I sit down and get out my programme. It’s a nice one. Well designed. There’s even a fold out of rehearsal photos. I don’t care much about rehearsal photography (it’s literally always actors sitting on the floor and laughing) but I do love a fold out.

I really want to take a photo of it.

Can I take a photo of it?

I look over at the programme seller. An old woman goes up to her. “Sorry dear,” says the old woman. “Can you tell me the number?”

The programme seller leans in to look at the ticket. It really is quite dark in here.

I risk it. And snap a photo.

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I look around furtively to make sure no one saw.

No, the usher is directing a young couple to the bars. “They’ve got wine, beer, and champagne at that one,” she says, pointing to table out in the stairwell. “And then there’s the big one upstairs.”

I slink down in my seat. I think I'm safe.

It's a shame though. I do like The Old Vic auditorium. With it tasselled balconies and moulded pillars and shaded lights and massive fuck-off chandelier. I wish I could show it to you. Oh well.

Two ushers appear at the front of the stalls, each holding up one of those don't-even-think-about-taking-a-photo signs. Which, even exclusing the, well, exclusive, vibes, doesn't strike me as a good use of someone's time. There's no one in here directing traffic. We have the programme sellers. And the sign holders. And... what looks like two security people hanging out by the wall. And that's it.

And why are there security people in the auditorium? I watch them, trying to figure out what they're doing there, near one of the doors. They stand, talking quietly to each other.

They're making me nervous.

Like they're going to pounce on me and drag me outside if I try to take another photo.

People are pouring in now. The rows fill up. I spot someone in the middle aim their camera phone at the ceiling and snap a picture of the chandelier.

I hate him.

The lights dim. The red curtains rise.

And the play begins.

We're in a cafe. A lawyer is meeting his client. It's bad news. They've cut her legal funding. But he's going to keep representing her. The fight is too important. Her husband has been murdered and everyone knows who to blame, except no one wants to admit it. Not publically, anyway.

We're back in the early 2000s, back to a case I only vaguely remember: the poisoning of Litvinenko.

And hey - look! Tom Brooke is playing Litvinenko! Do you remember when everyone was obsessed with Tom Brooke? Or rather, Tom Brooke's face. It's a great face.

I actually have a story about Tom Brooke. Or rather, Tom Brooke's dad. It takes place in The Old Vic too, so totes relevant. Not sure I should really tell it though... the walls have ears. Let's just say, it involved Tom Brooke's dad. A woman who would not turn off her phone. And a rolled up programme.

I’ll say no more. I'm very discreet.

MyAnna Burning, in the role of his widow, steps forward to speak to us, the audience. To explain. It's very important that we understand what happened.

The poisoning, I mean. Just to be clear. Not the thing with Tom Brooke's dad.

It's not easy for her though.

A red carpet is rolled out. There is a new president in Russia. And he wants to tell us a story.

Reece Sheersmith comes to the front of the stage, where he gives us a short history lesson. The Moscow Theatre Siege. We all shift uncomfortably in our seats. I look over at the security officers, still standing by the doors.

Sheersmith sneers, finishing his speech with a snide attempt at a happy ending.

"Ah, the doors are opening," he says, pointing to the auditorium doors behind us. "Enjoy your drinks. There's no need to return."

I go outside.

"Make sure you have your ticket with you so you can come back in," says an orange-waistcoater on my way out. I reach into my bag to double-check. Yup. Got it.

I go out and hang out underneath the scaffolding, lost in a forest of metal polls and orange hi-vis. They're everywhere. The orange-waistcoaters. I'm still not sure who they actually are. Ushers? Duty managers? Spies for the government who know that putting on a hi-vis jacket will get you in most anywhere without question? Quite possibly, all of the above.

"Sorry ma'am," says a orange waistercoater, coming over to talk to a woman near mewho's standing around, minding her own business, enjoying a plastic cup of wine. "You can't take drinks outside."

"Oh. Right," says the lady with the wine, her eyes widening in bafflement.

But she goes back inside all the same. No questions. Such is the power of the orange hi-vis.

Her place is soon taken though, as the queue for the loo stretches out of it's black corridor and stretches down Webber Street, curling around the front of the building.

I take a few steps away to avoid those trying to squeeze in, but still find myself getting jostled by all these women impatient to have a pee.

"Have you seen the queue?" a woman half-shouts, outraged. Her partner says something, but she's not having it. "It's not good enough!"

And with that she goes off to compain. A few seconds later, she's back, bringing an orange-waistcoater along with her.

The orange waistercoater points at the queue, and tells her yes: this is indeed the queue for the loos. And yes, she'll need to get in line with everyone else.

Others decide to fulfill their interval needs elsewhere.

I spot a couple tripping back happily from the Sainsbury's, Magnums in hand. No tiny theatre ice-cream tubs for these two. They look very smug as they skip past all us losers, standing around in queues without even a drink to call our own. Serious relationship goals right there.

"It's a coupe!" cries a man walking past me.

I though he meant the play, but no - he's looking at his phone, lit up with an article about the prorogation.

I go back in. I need some of that sweet sweet Old Vic air-conditioning. Which has really outdone itself tonight. Freezing cold, and I'm loving it.

I dig out my ticket to flash to the hi-vis on the door, but she stops me, actually taking the ticket from my hand to give it a proper look before letting me back in.

I'm rather pleased with this. Glad to know that I'm not looking overly trustworthy and can still push out those creeper-vibes.

Still… rude.

The side of the stalls is cluttered by people not wanting to commit to going back to sitting down.

I even have to shoo someone out from the end of my row in order to get to my seat.

But eventually, they cannot put it off any longer, and they slide into their seat with heavy wine-scented groans.

Sheersmith isn't impressed by our return. It demonstrates a lack of trust between us. He appears in the boxes, hanging over the sides to pour his own poison into the stalls below. At least, I think he does. I can hear his voice. And see a spotlight pointed at the box. But from where I'm sitting, I can't actually see him.

My neighbour drains his wine and checks the time on his phone.

This is a long play.

Not unentertaining though. And the message of fighting your own government in order to serve your country has never felt keener.

Burning comes out into the audience, handing out pieces of paper to those sitting on the ends of the rows in the stalls.

She returns with a microphone, pointing it in their faces as she asks they to read the results of the inquiry into Litvinenko's death.

They acquit themselves well, and she thanks them each in turn.

I hope they were given warning that was happening. It's a lot to ask.

As we meekly file out past the security guards, and the orange waistcoats, I can help but think of the demonstrations that are happening just the other side of the river.

I should really go join them.

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54 Block Pickup

I swear, sometimes the theatre gods want nothing more than to mess with me. They like to have their fun, this we know. But even so, I cannot work out how it is remotely amusing for them to block off half the roads around Kings Cross, sending me on wild and twisting diversions all around Coal Drop Yard, when it is 32 frickin degrees outside, just so that they can have me arrive at my theatre for the evening out of breath, red, flustered around the edges, with only three minutes to go before the show is supposed to start…

Ah.

Okay, I see it now.

But even so, it's not very nice of them. Especailly after everything they've put me through this year already.

I thought we'd come to an understanding of sorts. I would visit all the damn theatres, paying my due respect as I go, and they would help me. Or at the very least, not get in my way. I don't know where it went wrong, unless for some reason they don't approve of my methods.

Perhaps they don't like the way I write. All my short sentences and four-letter words.

Oh gawd, it's the swearing, isn't it?

Shit.

Oh well.

No time to think on that. Literally no time.

I burst into the Lord Stanley pub in a heaving ball of sweaty mess.

I look around. It's Sunday night and it looks like the pub is doing a fair amount of business. But this lot are all drinkers. Where are all my theatre people?

Oxygen deprived, I begin to panic, suddenly convinced that I had come to the wrong pub. One final trick of the theatre gods before they seal my marathon in a coffin and send it floating down the Thames, with ninety or so theatres still unvisited.

It's the final day of Camden Fringe. And the Lord Stanley isn't a classic theatre pub. Some improv group or other runs the theatre space upstairs. Chances of me getting in here again before the year is out are slim.

But no, it's okay. People seem to be drift over to the back of the room, driven by an unseen herder.

And there, I see it, the box office. Or, at least, what counts as a box office in places like this. A laptop, propped up on a small ledge.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to start!" calls out the young man behind the machine.

He's standing beside a doorway, and nailed to the inside is a chalkboard. "Camden Fringe. A Tingle in the Plumbing," it reads.

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Looks like I've found The Free Association's Comedy Room.

Finding what little air is left in my lungs, I manage to give my name to the box officer.

"Oh," says a passing woman, stopping in her tracks as she heads towards the door. "Do I need to...?"

"I just need to get you checked off," says the box officer.

"We have old fashioned paper tickets," she says, which sounds deeply unlikely to me. This is Camden Frnge after all.

The box officer looks at me. "You're fine," he says and I leave him to deal with the paper ticket lady.

Through the door I go, and up the creeky, narrow, stairs, twisting my way up and up. There doesn't seem to be any signage, and I am left to follow the echoes of laughter to find my way.

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Through another door, and yes, this is it. A small room painted black, but with heavy red curtains blocking out the windows. A large medallion is stuck to one wall, and there seems to be bricks on the other.

Wait, not bricks. They're tiles. The type of tiles that are made to look like mismatched slithers of stone. Those tiles that you find gracing the bathroom walls in the facier end of hotels. I’m not sure what to make of that.

There's a small stage. Two small stages, actually. One on each side. But they have been drafted in for seating purposes. Down each side of the room are two rows of chairs, running up onto the stages on both ends. The chairs are old fashioned. Really old fashioned. The have studs all over them, pinning in the upholstery. They look so old that I'm a little bit nervous about sitting down on one, just in case it crumbles under my weight.

I pick one in the second row. It appears stable enough.

I sit down carefully.

I think we're safe.

I get out my fan and do my best to get some air circulation going in here. It's very hot. Stifling. And my already overheated body is suffering greatly.

There are freesheets on alternate chairs. I pick one up from the seat next to me.

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It's nice. Good paper. An A3 folded in half. Artwork on the front. Inside there's a credit list, biographies, and a note from the playwright, which begins by offering a mea culpa that we're only getting three stories tonight, and not the four advertised on the poster. And the front of the freesheet for that matter.

I respect that.

Nothing bugs me more than when an artist wants to change a title in order to fit an updated running order. The title is the title. It's printed on the tickets. It exists. It's in the system.

Own your titles.

I try to read the rest, but it's really hard to balance a freesheet in one hand while flapping a fan in the other.

I need to pick one.

I go with the fan.

A few minutes of dedicated fan-flapping later, I'm feeling a little better.

It's only then that I'm able to take in what's happening in the centre of the room.

Two people crouch on the floor. It's Rebecca Banatvala and David Reed. Playing Jenga.

Playing with one of those oversized sets that I think are sold for garden use, but tend to get most of their air-time at drunken parties.

A woman sitting near me giggles as she watches them.

I'm not sure Jenga is much of a spectator sport, and doesn't particularly lend itself to comedy.

Perhaps she's drunk too.

The room gradually begins to fill up, everyone clutching at their drinks. No one looking bothered or concerned that the show was supposed to be starting shortly.

As the row in front of me is claimed, the Jenga players are hidden from view.

I knew it was coming. I've sat in enough unraked second rows to know that floor-work can't survive it. It does always baffle me though, why directors are so intent on getting their performers down on the ground, when they presumably know the room set up. It's almost like they don't want half the audience to see their work. Perhaps they're embarrassed or something.

Anyway, the music stops. The Jenga pile is smashed.

Reed heads up onto one of the stages were he has a laptop set up.

Banatvala begins the first tale, The Astronaut, in which she's... well, an astronaut. And we, the audience, are all students in a lecture she's giving. She tells us of space, of the adventure, of seeing the earth from the outside, of knowing fully and completely who you want to be and what you want to do in life, and then she tells us about coming back, of motherhood, losing a part of yourself, a part which is never wholly replaced.

Reed steps down off the stage and it's back to the Jenga pile. For some reason. I can't tell what they're doing down there. I focus on keeping my fan going until eventually whatever task they are doing is complete and we can get on with the second tale. The Shopper. This one sees Banatvala as a woman always seeking more. Her parents worked hard, and each birthday saw her gifts growing as did the family's place in the world. And she sees no reason that this should ever stop. She marries well. Their wealth accumulates. She develops her tastes, and her accent. And when children come, she wants more for them too. Unfortunately, one thing you cannot purchase is buy-in from your progeny.

Last up, The Accountant. Reed straps bells to his feet for this, and seats himself on a box, because Banatvala is getting her rap on and she needs a beat. Redundancy has taken this character hard. Or rather, made him hard. Both of the soul and, ummm... delicacy prevents me from completing that thought. I hope my flapping fan and flushed cheeks are not misinterpreted here, because he's out for what he can get, and is determined to get everything. Everything being women.

A man in the front row is drafted in to play Seamus, the hapless partner to one of the accountant's conquests, and made to hear the entire tale in all its sordid detail.

Blackout.

Tale complete.

We applaud the pair of them, our clapping calling them back to the stage for one more set of bows.

Someone comes over to speak to my neighbour.

"It's really hot in here," he breathes.

"It wasn't too bad on this side," she replies.

I put my fan away. Job done I think.

On my way out I pause, seeing the arrangement of Jenga blocks on the floor for the first time. They're laid out carefully. Like a snake. Perhaps hinting at the accountants snake-like traits? I cannot tell you. This tower of direction falls down when the players can't see what's happening at the lower levels.

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Holding out for a heroine

I'm nearing the end of my Camden Fringe adventure. And it has been an adventure. All these funny little spaces that I wouldn't have had the chance to see without their epic programming. I can almost forgive them for adding venues to the marathon. Almost.

Without the Camden Fringe I wouldn't have needed to check out any comedy venues. They're not part of the remit. But those igenious folks at the festival found a way to stuff some theatre onto those tiny stages, so off I go. To 2 Northdown this time. A place I've never been, or even heard of, which is something I'm starting to get bored of saying relation to Camden Fringe locations.

2 Northdown is on Northdown Street. Number two, as it happens, which is a pretty amazing coincidence. Don't you just love it when that happens.

I've arrived far too early, but there's already a group hanging around outside, waiting to go in.

I hang back and try to get a sense of the place.

It's small. Or rather, narrow. Like a terraced house. Except there are great big doors taking up the ground floor and a winch over one of the upstairs windows, which makes me think this building must have had a more industrial past. It looks nice though. Smart. A little bit classy.

Not sure I want to be hanging out on the pavement outside though.

So I go for a walk, up to Caledonian Road and around in a loop. By the time I get back, it's five minutes before showtime, and the group outside have all relocated. Presumably inside.

I follow their lead.

There's a tiny little foyer inside the door. Just large enough for one person to turn to the left, where there is another door.

Here a posing table has been set up, complete with cash wallet and printed lists. Looks like I've found the box office.

I give my name the girl on table-duty and she draws a line through my name.

"Got you," she says, and she steps back to let me through.

Two steps in and I'm already almost crashing into the back row.

This place is small. A single room. With the bar on one side and the stage on the other.

Even the loos are in here. One on either side of the stage, like soldiers standing sentinel.

There's a bench pressed against the wall, which seems to have become the unofficial line for the loo. The two sides aren't divided by gender. In fact, both of them have a male and female little icon on them, which seems a very binary approach to take for loo-inclusivity in 2019, but oh well. There's a sign underneath, which I figure might be there to explain that the loos are for anyone who wants to take a piss, but when I get my glasses out, I see it's nothing of the kind.

"Please don't use the bathrooms during the performance," it says. "They're not soundproof and it's awkward for everyone."

Ew.

I turn my attention to the decoration.

Framed show posters cover the walls, and by the looks of it, they're all signed. They're from some pretty famous comedians. Famous enough that even I have heard of them, and that's saying something.

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The rest of the space is filled with chairs.

And almost every single one of them is taken.

I spot a single spare seat at the end of the row, and ask the girl sitting next to it if I can take it.

"Yeah!" she cries out enthusiastically.

I don't think I've ever seen someone so happy to have a stranger sitting next to them.

But then, the excitement in this room is at last-day-of-school levels. Everyone is chattering and drinking and hugging.

As new people come in, cries of recognition echo around the room.

My neighbour squeals as she spots a friend and stands up to hug her, leaning right over me to do so.

Something tells me they all know the cast, and they are super pumped to see them on stage.

It's all rather sweet.

And impressive.

There's no way I could pack out an entire venue if I were to put on a show. Maybe, if I really laid on the guilt thick, I might fill out the front row, but the fact that every seat in this place is taken tells me a lot about these performers. Whoever they are.

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Flyers had been left on our seats and I have a look at mine to find out.

Let's see. It's Denni-Tyla Bell and Olivia Martin performing in a play they wrote themselves: Bananas are a funny shape.

I mean, they're not wrong. Bananas are a funny shape.

They're also apparently being sponsored by Bonnie Tyler and in their list of thanks, they credit Russell T Davies. So, my expectations are currently sky-rocketing.

The house lights go down.

There's a roar from the audience. They are here for this.

Although, I'm not quite sure what here is.

The stage lights have gone on, but I can't see anything.

I lean out to the right and catch a glimpse of an arm, but whether said arm belongs to Bell or Martin, I can't tell.

And here is the point where I discover why theatre isn't programmed in comedy venues. The stage may be raised, but unraked seating is never going to be able to cope with the demands of an actor wanting to... sit down.

I do my best, darting from left to right, mirror the head waving of the bloke sitting in front of me, but it's no good. When the performers are sitting, they might as well be invisible to those stuck in the back.

So I settle back in my chair, and just listen.

Bell and Martin's characters are getting ready for a night out. They don't know each other, but they have a lot in common. They're virgins. Not that they're frigid, you understand. No, they're just picky. Like Cher from Clueless. But without the natty tartan suits. And like Cher, they want someone who likes them for them. And they're feeling a bit let down. By the boys who want to get in their pants, the terrible sex ed classes at school, and their own bodies.

I find myself staring at the wall of framed posters, where I can just about see what's going on in the reflections in the glass. They're getting dressed up, doing their hair, and all the while talking to us. Their invisible friend. Their diary. Perhaps even their conscious.

But when it comes time to go out, they take us with them.

Phones rise out of the sea of heads to film the girls as they bop around to club bangers. And I suddenly realise how these two young women managed to fill an entire venue, because they are completely charming and absolute darlings, and I want to be their friend too.

And when it comes right down to it, their show isn't about boys or sex and going out on the pull, it's the power of female friendship, and the importance of sticking up for one another.

And if it came right down to it, I would definitely want Bell and Martin fighting my corner.

And not just because they have Bonnie Tyler and Russell T Davies on speed-dial.

As the stage lights go into blackout, a good chunk of the audience bounces out of their seats and applauds. And keep on going, even when Bell and Martin clearly want to say something.

They thank us all for coming. And the person doing tech. A few tears are shed.

"Everyone can leave!" says Bell to finish things off with a big wave of her arms.

But this lot ain't going. A couple of audience members go up with bouquets of flowers.

Never have I felt so much love in a room.

It's intoxicating.

But it's time for me to go, so that the pair celebrate with their people.

Behind me, the great doors have been opened out onto the street and I slip out, letting the party go on without me.

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Wash Out

Eight months into the marathon, and I think you know me well enough to sense that I'm a bit of a daredevil. A thrill-seeker. A speed junky. Always chasing that next high.

So on a Friday night, as the clouds darken and the rain begins to pour, there's only one place I could be heading.

Yup. I'm off to catch for some free outdoor theatre.

Yeah, it's risky. I know. But don't worry. I've checked their Twitter feed and there's no mention of it being called off. And with a six o'clock start, there's still time to run over to a different theatre and catch another show if it does get rained out.

There is the tricky matter of what to wear, but as I'm currently living out of a suitcase, and don't own any waterproofs anyway, I just make sure I've got my scarf in my bag and head off to London Bridge.

On the short walk from the station, umbrellas pop open all around me, but I refuse to give in. I march on, striding between the raindrops and resolutely deciding not to put up my own umbrella.

It's just rain. It's fine. The only thing I have to lose is my eyeliner.

Still, it's not without trepidation that I approach The Scoop.

And not just because everyone seems to be scurrying away in the other direction.

A low stone wall is quarantined behind crowd-control railings. Their only purpose seemingly to stop people from peering down into the stage from above. All I can see is a lighting rig, peeking up from inside the well like a submarine's periscope.

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As I walk around, following the path that leads to the bulbous glass shape of City Hall, I finally manage to catch a glimpse of what's happening.

Which is to say: nothing.

Rows and rows of empty seats. Wet and empty seats.

Wide stone steps, circling the floor-level stage, are filled with nothing but the slick sheen of rain.

I press on, walking round towards the entrance.

Two security guards stand around wearing hi-vis jackets. They don't pay me any mind as I walk past.

A woman in a waterproof does. She smiles as I approach, looking damp but resolute.

"Is the performance still going ahead?" I ask, a touch sceptically.

It's a couple of minutes to six. If it's happening, it's has to be soon.

"It is," she says, sounding very stoic about the whole thing.

I am filled with admiration. You have to applaud theatre people. They are the ancestors of those epic posties of old. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these stage managers from putting on a fucking play.

"Oh, you brave souls," I say, really meaning it.

"There's a marquee that you can sit under if you do decide to see it. It's not strictly for the audience, but there are only five people here so..." She lets the sentence trail away.

"I'm going to go for the marquee then," I say, and I do.

I walk around the back of the seating, past a small wooden shed, and find the promised marquee. Underneath there's a tech desk, being kept nice and dry, a small group of people huddling around it, and a dog.

I duck my head under the marquee and find an empty spot.

A gust of wind sneaks in, picking up my skirt just as I'm trying to sit down, and wafting it over the sleeping dog. They lift their head and look at me through half-closed eyes.

"Sorry," I apologise to the dog's owner. "I'll try and keep a hold of my skirt away from him... her? Him? ... her?"

The owner looks at me from under her umbrella. "It doesn't matter," she says before turning away.

Well, alright then.

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The dog isn't bothered by either my skirt or my misgendering and they promptly go back to sleep.

A second later, someone arrives with a rolled-up blanket, and the owner carefully tucks the dog in.

The dog sighs contentedly.

They look super comfy.

The rest of us shiver as we wait for the show to start.

A young woman races down the steps towards the stage. We're off! The Sea Queen, a very appropriate title for the weather, as the pirates slop their way across the wet stage.

It's pretty cute. There are songs. And swords. And a girl pirate who don't take no nonsense from any boys.

They're all miced up, but even so, it's hard to hear over the patter of the rain on the roof of the marquee. I strain to make out the lyrics and then, as a cast member darts off to the left, I realise I don't have to. Because there's a captioning screen right there. It's got all the words, and I hadn't even noticed it. So, I can read along the bits I miss.

I'm very happy right now. Even if it's freezing.

As the pirates' shirts grow sodden I scramble about in my bag for a scarf.

More people arrive. A cool looking girl stands on the steps to watch from beneath the shadow of a huge umbrella. People walking past stop to look over the wall. A family appear and the two small girls squirrel themselves under the marquee, sitting close to the dog - but not too close.

But the rain doesn't stop. Puddles begin to form on the stage.

As the actors race about, swashbuckling about with swords, the stage manager comes out. She raises her hand and the battle stops, mid-swash.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she calls out. "Apologies to those that have just arrived, and those in the audience sheltering," she says, indicating our group under the marquee. "We’re just going to pause-"

"-the pivotal moment!" says the girl pirate, earning herself a giggle.

"Pause for health and safety reasons," continues the stage manager. "We're just going to check in with one another."

"We won't tell who wins!" says pirate girl.

"Shame!" calls back one of the marqueers.

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The cast all creep their way damply off stage and go to hide behind the set.

The rain continues to pour down onto the marquee, weighing down the roof until a huge flood splashes off and makes us all jump.

Underneath, a gentle camaraderie forms between the marqueers.

A couple gets chatting with the lady at the tech desk. She's the captioner. She was supposed to be doing the show on Wednesday, but it got rescheduled. Because of the rain.

They ask if she's a student and are surprised to learn that no, it's her actual job. Then they ask about the actors, and are again shocked to find out that they've all graduated and are now bona fide working actors.

We wait. This rain really isn't letting up.

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I blearily stare at all the office blocks rising above the edge of The Scoop. Odd view. Considering we have the river right behind us. You'd think they'd want Tower Bridge as a backdrop.

Perhaps I should go. Not because I'm damp and cold. I am damp and cold, but the actors must be damper and colder, and I do wonder whether they would feel more comfortable leaving if, well, we weren't here.

"Looks like they're stopping," says someone nodding towards the stage. A couple of actors scuttle out from behind it. They're in costume. But not the pirate costumes from before. They're in doublets. Fancy doublets. With frogging. Not really suitable wear for the high seas. These look altogether more Shakespearian fare.

The family decide to call it quits.

"Thank you for coming," says the captioner. "Sorry we couldn't do anything about the weather."

"Oh, are you in control?" asks the dad.

"Yeah," says the captioner with a sigh. "Sorry."

They say goodbye to everyone and make their way out into the rain.

The rest of us cross our arms and wait for news.

The stage manager reappears.

It isn't looking good.

"Ladies and gents," she starts. "Thank you so much for your patience. That took a little longer than expected. We're going to have to cancel this show, just because the floor is a bit slippy. But the forecast is looking good for later and we're still going ahead with Twelfth Night and we'd love for you to stay and see our beautiful production on the same set. It starts at eight, so don't go too far, go get a drink something warm to eat, and well see you later."

And she's off. Presumably to find a drink and something warm to eat for herself.

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More cast members appear. One of them is wearing a massive dress. So massive she needs help keeping the skirts up away from the ground. It's pale cream. Can't be having that dragging only on the damp concrete.

They wave at us as they make their way around the seats, stopping to clap in our direction as they draw near.

We applaud right back.

Not all heroes wear capes. But they frequently wear big arse-dresses and ruffs.

Time to go.

I pull my jacket tight around me and emerge from the marquee.

It's not so bad now that I'm not sitting on a cold stone step.

As I clamber back up the steps, the rain stops. The sky clears.

People start to emerge from the cafes and pubs they'd been hiding in.

I decide to walk to Embankment. Take in the river.

I won't be coming back for the second show. I've already seen two Twelfth Nights this year. I'm sure the cast with cope with my absence. They're made of strong stuff.

Going extinct

I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.

This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.

I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.

But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.

I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.

I go in.

It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.

A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.

I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.

Well then.

Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.

"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"

I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"

So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.

I angle it to face me.

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"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"

"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.

She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."

She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.

Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.

A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.

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The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.

There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.

It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.

And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.

We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.

"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.

The door is closed.

Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.

As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.

My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.

This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

I think we can all agree that he is not alright.

But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.

Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.

As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.

The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.

I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.

I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.

I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.

We both jump.

"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.

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The lights flicker again. And go out.

I think I'm going to have a panic attack.

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.

We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.

As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.

They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.

It's the only explanation.

But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.

The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."

"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.

I'm still not convinced.

I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.

I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.

As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.

They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.

Something feels off.

Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.

I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.

Bloody Russian bots.

I think I must be the last real person left in London.

The DeLorean in the Basement

I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.

So I didn't.

Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.

And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.

Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.

Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.

I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.

Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.

Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.

Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.

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There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.

I guess that's where I'm heading.

Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.

There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.

I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.

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There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.

It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.

The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.

Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

"Are you here for the show?" he asks.

"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.

"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."

Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.

Except, there wasn't any signage.

Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.

I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.

"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.

"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."

I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.

I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.

The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.

A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.

Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.

Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.

I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.

Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.

... I wear black.

A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.

A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.

"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."

As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.

I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.

When we get to me, I give my name.

"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.

It really is dark down here.

I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.

"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.

"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."

It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.

The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.

There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.

It's a small room. Tiny.

Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.

In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.

Behind are rows of chairs.

And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.

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I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.

I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.

So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.

"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.

There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.

The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."

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We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.

"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."

Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.

I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...

First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."

I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.

Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.

The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.

Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.

Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.

I leave.

As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.

I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.

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Think of Punny Title Later

It's Friday afternoon and I'm on my way to the theatre, because, well, I am on annual leave and that's apparently what I'm doing with my time off.

I'm in Crouch End which is not a part of London I go to all that often, but... oh look! A second-hand clothing shop with a rack of summer dresses on sale... No. Nope. Don't go in. Focus. We're here to go to the theatre. In a bar. Because I'm still working my way through all those Camden Fringe venues.

I think it's this place just up ahead. It looks nice enough. Although they're not making it easy working out how to get in. Two doors. One either side of the windows. Both painted the same colour. Both lacking in the signage department.

I go for the one without the flat buzzers next to it. Which was the right decision, of course. But man, my brain is mush right now. And that took way too much effort to work out.

But there's a box office right inside the door, so I'm hoping this will be an easy one.

"Hi, the surname's Smiles," I say to the young woman behind the counter. This doesn't get quite the reaction I was after. "For... Camden Fringe?"

"I don't actually have a list of the people who booked," she says.

"Oh." Oh. I'm... not sure what I'm meant to do with that information.

"Do you have the email?" she asks hopefully.

"I do!" I pull my phone out of my pocket. "Oh, I actually have it open."

"You're ready to go!"

I laugh. I am. But mainly because my anxiety insists on me checking and rechecking start times and locations at least six or seven times between leaving the house and actually arriving at the venue.

I turn the screen around for her to see and I swear she actually backs away from it.

"Wow," she says. "You've booked a lot."

There are ten shows on that confirmation email. One of two Camden Fringe confirmation emails in my inbox.

"Yeah..." I raise my hand in a stopping motion. "Let's not talk about it."

"Oh, I see..." she says. But let's be real here. No one understands what I'm doing. Not even you.

Not even me, if we're really honest.

As she examines the email, wading through all those shows, I look around.

There are a pile of programmes on the desk.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask.

"Please do..."

She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.

"Is it free?" I ask.

"It's free... or by donation."

Ah. "Okay, I get the hint," I say, pulling out my purse.

I drop a pound coin in the money box and take me and my programme off to explore the venue.

It doesn't take long.

The bar runs all down one side, and the rest is taken up by seating, facing a small wooden stage.

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Beanbags at the front, then a few rows of chairs, then those raised bar chairs running all the way to the back.

I always try to go for the first row on the rake, so I suppose that means I'm going for the first row of bar chairs. Right on the end because I like to be able to lean against the wall. And... hide.

"I'm just going to tuck myself behind you," says a woman, slipping into the row behind. "Don't be alarmed."

I wasn't. Until she gave me that warning.

"It's always a challenge deciding whether you want the height to see, or if you want your feet to actually touch the ground," I say, heaving my short-arse up into the high chair.

"I wish there were more high seats, because you can't see anything from back there," she says, pointing to the rows of stools behind us. "They're all the same height."

"You need to practice ducking and weaving to see around people's heads," I say, with the surety of someone who's been doing a lot of ducking and weaving this year.

Turns out ducking and weaving aren't high on the list of things people want to do this afternoon, and our rows of high chairs soon fill up. No one wants the chairs. Or the beanbags.

That song about lighting a candle from Rent (you know, the one ripped from La Boheme) is playing over the sound system, and the man behind the bar is singing along. He has a great voice. I'm really enjoying the harmonies,

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says when the song finishes. Really, really great voice. Deep. "The show will start in about ten minutes so please turn off your mobile phones. If you need to leave, please use the door you came in. If you need to use the toilet, please go before the show. As you can see, they're onstage, so unless you want to be in the show..." he lets the sentence trail way. "Go now."

I look over at the stage. There is a door going off it. I hadn't noticed that before.

We've got a Jermyn Street Theatre situation going on here.

No one chances the loo. The thought of accidentally walking out into the middle of the first scene is way to much pressure to put on a person when they're peeing.

We also ignore the bit about the mobile phones. Ten minutes is loads of time. I can proofread an entire blog post before then. Which might explain a lot about the state of all of this...

There is one bloke prepared to severe the link to our technolocial crutches though.

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"Can I put my phone behind the bar to charge?" he asks.

Before this marathon, I've never appreciated how willing bar people were to solve all your life problems. Charge phones. Hold bags. Refrigerate your dinner until you get out of the show. That, and, you know, serve the alcohol that will actually get us through the show.

He hands over his charger, and it's fucking massive.

The barman with the voice tests it out in a socket, but it ain't happening. "Let's try it over here..." he says, taking it off to find another plug point, because bar people are literally the best people in the world. Especially theatre bar people. Because theatre-goers are all terrible and even worse when they drink.

The lights start dimming. We all shuffle around getting show-ready.

Light pours in. Someone's come through the door.

They want to know what this place is and what happens here.

I'm on the same mission. It never occurred to me that I could just ask.

The box officer tells him we're here to watch a musical. It starts in five minutes. It's one act long.

Now these are key selling points a person with ten shows on their booking confirmation email. Not sure the shortness of the entertainment experience really does it for someone wandering in off the street.

He asks if it's on again, and then withdraws with the politeness of someone saying they left their wallet at home, but will definitely come back once they've been to the cash machine.

"This afternoon's performance is a relaxed performance, so if you need the toilet or to leave at any time... We also have some sensory toys available if you need them."

Oh! So that explains the bean bags. Kinda regretting not sitting in one now. High seats are not comfortable. I'm short. I like being close to the ground. And sinking into the gentle embrace of a beanbag sounds super comforting right now. Although from that position, right in front of the stage, a beanbagger would be able to see right up the actors' noses. Okay. No. Too disconcerting and weird. Abort mission. I'm not into it. I'm staying right here. On my high chair. At the end of the row. Next to the wall. Where it's safe.

Someone sitting behind me sneezes.

"Bless you," says the barman as he walks past on his way to turn the aircon down.

It's very quiet now.

This is it.

We're starting.

Oh, they're singing a song about singing a song. It's so meta I want to scream, or laugh, or cry. I don't know what I want or who I am, I just can't stop smiling. I'm so happy.

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I mean, I should have guessed. You don't book to see a show called [title of show] without expecting a deep-dive into self-referential humour, but having an actor dressed up as a literal blank page is too much for me.

And I can't even concentrate on any of that because one of the guys, William Tippery, has the most fantastic eyebrows I have ever seen in my life, and the other is one that I totally recognise. I know that face. I've definitely seen it before. But it was different. Those cheekbones had blusher on them last time I saw them. And he was wearing a dress. And yes, I've got it. It's Kieran Parrott. He was Stella in Fanny & Stella. I'd recognise those jazz hands anywhere. I saw them at the Above the Stag in... June, I think. Aw... I really enjoyed that show.

As they set about the challenge of writing a musical in three weeks, the same musical that we're sat here watching right now, they are also busy smashing my heart into smithereens because they are all so adorable. With their eyebrows, and their jazz hands, and Charlotte Denton with her... really incredible height and cute nose and songbird voice. And when Alyssa LeClair's Susan breaks into a song called Die, Vampire, Die - well, that's it. I'm officially smitten. Because that's really what I want right now. Not a song about killing vampires. I mean, yes. It's a song about killing vampires. But not the toothy sort. Leave them be, they're just hanging out in graveyards looking pale and wanting a good stake. No, the vampires that eat away at our confidence and get in the way of us doing the things we want to do. The ones that dig their claws into our shoulders and whisper a constant stream of contempt into our ears until we're made immobile by our insecurities.

So what if they only have three weeks? So what if their set is four chairs and they're accompanied by nothing more thab a man on a keyboard.

They're making it work to the mostest. Those chairs are sliding their way between transition scenes. And the pianist, well, they're letting him talk! They let the pianist talk! And Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, looks so happy as he turns around in his seat so that he can all see that big smile on his face as he says his line.

And that makes me happy.

And I really really needed a happy show today.

And even though it's been hard (like, really, stupidly, hard) I have to be grateful to the theatre marathon. Because without it, I wouldn't be sitting here, watching a fringe musical, in a bar, in Crouch End, by myself, and feeling like I could just burst with the joy of it all.

And oh lord, they're all taking their shirts off, and I don't know where to look. I'm feeling like a right old perv right now.

With Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, sitting at his keyboard, with his back to the audience, I can see his sheet music. And we're at the end. The last song. It's over.

It's time to go.

I wonder if that second-hand shop has vampire-killing outfits...

Roundabout Here

For all the times that the theatre gods have had my back on this marathon, they really fucked up big time over the last week. After complaining endlessly about how hard to was to get to theatres all the way from Finchley, I promptly find that as soon as I shift myself down to Hammersmith, the Camden Fringe kicks off, and everything of any use to me is now on the Northern Line.

And what's doubly annoying, is that I can't even blame the fringe for this afternoon's trip. I'm off to a weekday matinee at the Roundhouse. Which I could have done at literally any time when I was just a tube ride away. But now, I have to wait until I go all the way down to the end of the Piccadilly line to book this one.

I really need to get better at planning things.

My spreadsheets just aren't cutting it at the moment.

So, anyway. Whatever. It's my fault. And not the theatre gods. Need to make that clear. I don't want them to smite me now.

Especially when I'm running super late.

On the tube for over an hour, and I'm belting it down the road from Chalk Farm station. The pavements are clogged with tourists getting their Camden on. I dodge between them, trying to ignore the clunk in my knee that still hasn't healed.

Where was I? Right. The Roundhouse. Been here before. Never for theatre though. Always for dance. Bit of Akram Khan and... no. I think that's it actually.

Getting my theatre in now though. I'm here for The Barber Shop Chronicles which I managed to totally miss when it was at the National.

Thank gawd for transfers, eh? Bit of an unusual one though, coming to the Roundhouse I mean. Not a classic National Theatre transfer location. Their things usually end up going to the West End before they bust them out on the regional touring circuit. I'm not complaining though. Everyone was raving about this show, and now I actually get to see it, and bonus points - it counts towards the marathon. Theatring doesn't get much better than that.

I'm think I'm here now. I can see the familiar round walls of the place coming up. I trot down the steps and make my way to the main door. And with a few minutes to spare.

Thank the theatre gods.

"Have you got your tickets?" asks the security dude minding the door.

I stop.

"Picking up?" I say.

He points to another door just behind me. "Just that door there, madam."

Madam?

I mean... I don't want to be one of those old women who complain about being called Madam. But seriously. Madam?

Never mind. It doesn't matter. I've not got time for this.

"That door?" I ask, just to double-check.

"That's it," he says. Very patiently.

Well, okay then. That door it is.

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I rush back across the flagstones and push my way in through this other door.

The box office is right in front of me.

Two queues. A sign pinned to the barrier rope tell me that I need to go left.

I go left.

Down the line of box officers, that one right at the end sticks up her hand and waves it, indicating she's free. I make my way down.

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She has pink hair and a very familiar-looking face.

Very familiar.

"Hello?" I say.

She looks up.

"Oh my god..."

It's Emma!

Now, Emma hasn't been on the blog before, but her presence has been felt. She was the one who gave me the tip-off that the Embassy theatre lurks within the walls of Central School of Speech and Drama. And I think I might have mentioned the feather she got me at Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, way back when in the old Southwark Playhouse.

And now she's here. I had no idea she worked here.

"You're here!" I say, still not entirely convinced of the fact, even though she's standing all of two feet in front of me.

"I'm here!" she says helpfully. "I've been seeing everyone come to this one. It's so good."

"Is it?" I haven't heard a single bad thing about the show, but still... after traipsing halfway across London to see it, I need the reassurance.

"It really is."

That's a relief.

"And you're here..." I seriously cannot get over this.

She grins. "I'm back in box office. Mostly music, but today it's theatre."

"And so I'm here," I say, throwing up my arms. Where theatre goes... I follow.

"You're here!"

"Err, so... the surname's Smiles," I say, just in case she's forgotten. It's been a while...

She goes off to the desk at the back to look through the ticket box.

"You know, I saw that surname but didn't connect," she says, coming back with the ticket in hand.

"There aren't many of us..." There really aren't. I pause. Should I say something about the blog? I know she knows about the blog. Because of the whole telling me about the Embassy thing. Fuck it.. "You know you're going to be in my blog now..." I say darkly.

She flicks her hair. "I hope you make me sound good."

I laugh. I don't think she needs any help from me there. Emma is the box office queen, handing out feathers and keeping everyone in line. In the nicest way possible.

"I wish we could catch up," she says, very sweetly.

"Is there an interval?"

"No, it's one hour forty-five, straight through."

Dammit. Usually, that would be the perfect answer to this question, but today... today I want to gossip with an old friend.

"They're just trying to keep us apart," I say with a sigh, before biding my goodbyes.

"You'll love it," says Emma. "Seriously.”

Well okay then. That is one hell of a recommendation.

I make my way over to the stairs.

I love the stairs at the Roundhouse.

They go round the house.

And that makes me happy.

Plus, being like, super-wide, and with that curve, they totally play into any Scarlett O'Hara fantasies knocking about in my head at any given moment. Hang on... that's super racist of me. Okay, scrap that. Any Rose from Titantic fantasies I got knocking about in my head. Just like... let's change the ending. Two people can fit on that door. Yadda yadda. You get it.

The stairs are great and deserve to be swept down while wearing a big-arse dress. I am not wearing a big-arse dress. But this is fantasy. And no one is sinking the Roundhouse any time soon.

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Right. We're am I going now?

"Rear stalls" is what it says on my ticket. "Area 6."

Theatres in the round always have such confusing zoning, with all those entrances all over the place. It's more than my marathon-fogged brain can deal with.

The ticket checker beeps my ticket (fucking love a ticket beeper/paper ticket combo - Roundhouse is doing it) and I ask where I'm going.

"Go through to the right, and up the stairs," he says.

Seems simple enough.

I go right, and there are the stairs for area 6, clearly marked.

Where now?

There's another front of houser at the top of the stairs. I show him my ticket.

"You're in the back row," he says, pointing to the aisle just next to us. "Enjoy the show!"

I find my seat as I as take off my jacket and settle down, I try to work out what's wrong. It's all been far too easy.

It's a Thursday matinee. The house isn't exactly full. But still, a tall man manages to take the seat directly in front of me.

I turn my attention upwards. To the iron pavilion keeping up the domed roof. And the magnificent lighting rig punctuated with illustrated adverts for barbershops around the world. I try to read all of them, but I soon get distracted. The cast is already out on stage. As are half the audience, by the looks of it.

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Front rowers are being invited out to sit in the barber chairs.

As Lil Nas X takes us down the Old Town Road, the actors fuss around them, pretending to run clippers over their heads before holding up mirrors so that their clients can check out their reflections. They all grin happily at the sight of their utterly unchanged style.

Black-clad stage managers appear to help take photos of audience members in the chairs.

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And then the dancing starts.

The front rowers jump up to join in, spinning around to show off their new do to the sounds of The Sugarhill Gang's Apache.

And then they're sent back to their seats, because it's time to begin.

I slip into the seat next to me. Out from behind the tall man. Giving myself a clear view of the stage.

After all the dancing and the tunes, we're in a closed barbershop. It's early in the morning. So early the owner is still asleep on a mattress on the ground. A banging on the door. Someone needs an urgent haircut. They have a job interview at 9am, and it's three hours away from here.

And so we're taken on a tour of shops, all around Africa, touching base with one in London. Thousands of miles apart, they are united by conversations of race, language, the need for role-models, and a deep, ever-present joy.

Some much joy.

Too much to contain on stage.

It out over the audience until you can't help but grin along with these men who are determined to get the most out of life, and look good while doing it.

And through it all, we follow the course of a single joke, told from barber to client, client to barber, shop to shop, changing with the storyteller to suit to location, eventually landing in the lap of a young actor in London.

I don't think I've ever seen an ensemble cast so tight, so connected, so bursting with energy.

I love every single one of them.

I wonder who they are...

I've been doing the fringe-route for so long I'd forgotten there were things you could buy to help with that. Papery things. Look like books but thinner. Programmes! That's it.

As the cast disappear I look around the audience, but there's not a programme to be seen. The ushers don't seem to have any either.

But the cast is back out for one more dance number, and I forget all about it again.

Time to go.

Except, I have an evening show later. I should probably pop to the loo before I leave.

Yup.

It's happening.

What you've always wanted.

I'm going to review the theatre toilets.

And for a start, the queue is astonishing. Stretching right out the door and into the corridor before I get anywhere close.

We stand, shifting from one side to the other as men come and go through their own door with barely a pause.

A camaraderie forms in the line, as some of the older ladies joke about taking over the men's as well, and we lean against the door to keep it from slamming in any of our faces.

Inside it's clean enough. I have a bit of trouble figuring at the flushing button, but I get there in the end... no wonder the queue is so slow.

One of the soap dispensers is out of order. And there's only one hand dryer. For three sinks.

As I head out, the line is still stretching out into the corridor.

That’s done. I hope you're happy now. Loo reviewed.

Let's hope I don't ever have to do that again.

Back down the stairs, feeling rather less like Rose. I bet there weren't queues for the loos on the Titanic. Although, she probably only ever used the facilities in her stateroom...

Enough of that. I just spotted someone with pink hair. I've got a box officer I need to catch up with!

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Soft Hearts, Wet Sponges

I'm at the Iris Theatre tonight for a bit of outdoor promenading. This is a first for me. Not the outdoor promenading (though it may be... I can't think of one I might have done before) but the going to the Iris.

I have however been to St Paul's. No, not that St Paul's. The one in Convent Garden. The one that's called the Actors' Church to avoid exactly this confusion.

Back in my interning days in the West End, I would come here during my lunch break, to sit in the gardens, eat my sandwich, and try to convince myself that giving up my sweet corporate job to start again at the bottom, and in the arts of all things, was absolutely a good life decision.

That came to an end when I accidentally gatecrashed a funeral.

Yeah.

I mean, in my defence, they usually would close the gates when there was a service. But for some reason they just let me saunter on in without comment that day.

Probably because my look is very... black. It's black. I wear a lot of black.

I decided to have my lunches elsewhere after that, and my next job was in Deptford, which was a bit far to think of coming back for a sandwich.

Anyway, I am back. Without a Tesco meal deal in hand.

After walking around the block, trying to work out what entrance I needed to use, I join the queue going through the tunnel from King Street.

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The queue is moving slowly. Mainly because the one box officer on duty has to tell everyone the photography policy.

"Absolutely no photography after this point," he says. "No photos can be taken after go through. If we see you taking a photo, we will ask you to delete it."

Wow. That's one hard line.

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Still, at least it gives me plenty of opportunity to contemplate the signage telling us that it'll cost us fifty pee to spend a penny at the nearest public loos. And I thank the theatre gods that I have resisted every attempt to make me review theatre loos. Seriously, I'm not doing it. You can't make me. I don't want to.

A group a few places ahead asks where they should sit.

"For now sit anywhere you like," says the box officer. "It's a promenade performance so you'll move around." They don't look overly satisfied with this answer. "I don't want to spoil the surprise!"

That does the trick. They move on.

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Eventually, I shuffle my way up to the front and give my name.

There's a basket of programmes on the desk, and as he checks my name off the list, I pull three pounds out of my purse in readiness.

"Here's your ticket," he says, handing me a small scrap of paper with the Iris Theatre logo. He spots the coins in my hand. "Are you after a programme?"

"Yes please!"

He's so distracted about the business of programme-selling that he neglects to give me the photography spiel which I take to mean that I now have plausible deniability on the rules.

The little terrace area just in front of the church looks like it's been boarded off. Huge brown-painted screens are keeping us in one corner. There are benches. And a bar.

The programmes are very handsome, with the church bells, and the title treatment proclaiming "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" over the backdrop of old Paris.

I risk a photo of it.

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No one arrests me. Or asks me to delete it.

I contemplate the hoarding, wondering if I can get a shot of that.

There's a sign.

"Please no photography beyond this point."

I stare at it. Do they mean the area beyond the boards, or are they including our little holding area here?

I aim my camera upwards and take a photo of the bunting. Surely there cannot be any harm in bunting-photos. It's pretty bunting. Red, white, blue. Very cheerful. Very liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Not super 1482, but then, nor are the candle-flame bulb lights woven in with it. I don't think they pinned candles to bunting even in the 15th century. Candles were expensive. They wouldn't waste them on all this peasanty frippery. Plus, fire. But then again... medieval times.

Still, it's all very jolly.

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The benches are all taken now, but I find a convient low wall to perch on.

Without anywhere to sit, people are starting to gather near the blocked off bit.

"I feel we're just moving about," somewhere says as they push their way as close to the hoarding as they can get.

I feel you are too.

A secondary queue forms near the other possible entrance. This one a wooden doorway, topped with a gothic arch and closed off with a green velvet curtain, complete with tassels.

"Ooo," says someone. "Maybe it starts here."

High above us, the church bell dongs seven times in what has the be the most dramatic use of the theatre bell I've heard in this marathon.

A man looks up towards the bell tower. "I wonder if they're setting it here because the venue has been burnt down..."

He pauses.

"Yes... it's a tragedy."

A lady sitting behind me is laying down some theatre truths. "Of course, I like going to West End shows," she says to the person she's with. "But I like to go to the fringe theatres because they put on the more interesting things. They can afford to take more risks which the big theatres can't with their overhead."

I want to raise my hand and offer her a "Preach, theatre-sister!" but I don't want to draw attention to myself. I'm still trying to get a decent photo of this place.

But it's too late now. I hear music.

The cast is coming out.

They emerge from the side of the church, instruments in hand.

"I'm going to have to ask you to move," says the leader to the man standing next to me. "This is my stage." She indicates the low wall I'm perching on. I shift to the other side, just avoiding a young man strumming at a guitar.

The leader of the troupe, Darrie Gardner, introduces them. They are the Left Bank players. Not to be confused with the Right Bank Players, lead by her ex-husband (they all spit to the ground at the mention of his name) and they are all one big happy family.

With a wave of their arms, they beg us to follow them.

The hoarding as been pulled back.

We're going on.

"Watch out," says a front of houser, wearing a pale blue cloak over her street-clothes.

She points down to the wooden support sticking out from the board.

"Ah," I say, raising a finger. "Thank you!" I'd almost tripped over it.

The pretty facade of St Paul's (not that one) is on our left, but we're turning right, going down the path and across the lawn over on one side.

The players chatter along with the audience as we go. "Have you been to the Festival of Fools before?" they ask.

"I like your dress," says Robert Rhodes, our Quasimodo, to a woman walking near me. "It matches the streamers."

I'm not sure that's a compliment. There are a lot of streamers here. Thousands of fabric strands hanging on strings that run between the trees. Benches have been placed around, forming an oval-shaped stage in their midst.

We all shuffle in, taking our seats where we can find them.

I would show you a photo, but I’m too scared. So here’s one I took of the St Paul's (not that one) churchyard in 2012.

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I don't think I need to get into the business of the story, we've all seen the Disney version. But the leader of the Left Bank Players takes the role of narrator, introducing Quasimodo, who hangs half-way up a tree, and Esmerelda, who swirls and dances before us, and all the rest. Katie Tranter's Pierre tries to play us a ballad on her mandolele and we're all encouraged to boo her.

I'm not really into that. Not even in make-believe.

Rhodes comes down from his tree and asks a tiny girl in the front row if she'd dance with him.

She shakes her head.

Undeterred, Rhodes moves over to her sister, an equally tiny girl. This one is more than happy to join in, and the pair of them dance around together.

Izzy Jones' Esmerelda bends down next to the first tiny girl. "Are you sure you don't want to dance?" she asks, but OG tiny girl isn't having it. She shakes her head again.

As the festivities go on, the sounds of the piazza drift over from the other side of the church. The calls of the real street performers drifting on the breeze into our little Parisian enclave as Jones starts to sing.

A love song.

She opens her hand to all the pretty ladies in the front row, singing of their beauty. One of them winks back. I think she's made a conquest.

When a fight breaks out, Tranter slips into the audience, rubbing at her arm and hiding behind the small girls who do their best to shield her.

It's time to move on.

We're divided up. Half to go out one exit, half the other. And we're taken across the path to the other lawn.

More low wooden benches. This time set up either side of an aisle. We're in the gipsy encampment. Esmerelda's home.

Max Alexander-Taylor takes a seat amongst us.

An audience member dithers nearby.

"You can sit anywhere you like," he tells her. "But not this seat. It's mine."

It's starting to get cold. I pull on my jacket.

A man has been given a beanie hat to wear. Not quite a concession to the chilly evening. It has goat ears. He'll be playing the role of Esmerelda's pet. He doesn't seem upset about this. When Tranter's Pierre goes over to pet him, giving his beanie a good stroke, he preens under her attentions.

But, oh dear. Quasimodo is being led off.

Are we're being asked to follow.

Ed Bruggemeyer shows us what to do. "Shame. Shame. Shame," he chants, pointing a jabbing finger towards Rhodes.

I'm really really not into that. I follow on behind. Not chanting. Or jabbing. I'll leave the Game of Thrones recreations to the kids.

They seem to be enjoying it.

As Rhodes is stuck in the pillory, they're all brought foward and given sponges to throw.

"Wet sponges!? You said they'd be dry," shouts Rhodes at the troupe leader.

But Gardner can only shrug an apology. They must follow their art, after all.

The children all throw their sponges.

And then a cry of mercy rings out. One the audience is encouraged to join in with.

This I can get on board with.

No actor should have to suffer the indgnity of wet sponges.

But it's not all wet sponges.

The goat is brought back out to do a trick, which he performs masterfully.

And not to be outdone, Pierre reappears in a jester's outfit. "Nothing like this has been done anywhere near here," says Tranter, before showing off her juggling balls. That gets a giggle as we all wonder how many balls are being juggled on the steps out on the other side of the church.

But the giggles don't last for long, and soon there's a body on the floor.

"Nothing to see here," say the soldiers as they spread out their cloaks, hiding it from view. "Move along now."

We’re hurried out back through the hoarding, the boards closing shut behind us, sealing in the crime scene.

"Is this an interval?" someone asks the world in general.

It is.

Somehow I end up back in my old spot, on the low wall.

I should probably move.

I tuck myself up against the wall of the church, where the bunting brushes against the top of my head every time the breeze blows.

There's a queue at the bar.

A girl buys a cup full of tri-colour sweets, but a second later they're scattering over the flagstones.

"Ten-second rule," someone calls as her family scrambles to pick them all up.

I spot the goat-man. He still has his hat on. He seems rather happy with it.

"Les enfants!" The cast are back. And they've found the tiny girls again. "Would you like to join the circus?”

"Yesss!" The girls bounce around. They are well up for joining the circus.

As Esmerelda teaches them how to play a drum, the others ask their parents if they're cool with their children joining the troupe.

Turns out they are. "Of course!" I mean, who doesn't want their kid pursuing a career in the arts...

After a brief catch-up on some backstory, the boards are drawn back once more and we are off again.

This time, we're going to court.

"I need someone with a big clear voice!" calls out Tranter, while wearing a white judges' wig.

A dad points to the boy sitting in his lap.

Tranter looks unsure. "There are a lot of big words..."

But the little boy's great big eyes get the better of her and she hands them the lines. "Perhaps if you read it together..."

They do, and do it marvellously.

Goat-man says his piece too, bleating whenever his name is called.

And then it's time for the execution.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop," calls out Bruggemeyer as he instructes us in the proper way to follow a condemned person. But by the time I get out the garden they're already well ahead. We all hurry to keep up.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop."

"If we keep on step stopping we'll never get there," says a man hurrying next to me.

We keep on stepping, and do our best to avoid the stops. Eventually making it to the gallows.

A drop of rain lands on my cheek.

Oh dear.

I look up, and see others around me doing the same.

Another drip. Tiny. Barely noticeable.

I sit very still, waiting for the next one. But it doesn't come.

The theatre gods are having fun with us tonight.

The rain seems to have stopped though. Just in time for the battle of the church steps.

Bruggemeyer pulls out the kids from the audience to serve as Esmerelda's army, and the adults take the side of the king. But there aren't enough children on the side of right, so the rest of us are pulled over.

Buckets of sponges are handed around. They're wet.

I give it a test squidge. It leaves a dirty mark on my palm.

I try not to contemplate what they've been soaked in.

When the battle cry goes out, I lob it over to the other side, and tens of wet sponges come hurling over the other way.

I don't have the nerves for war, and soon it is a fight between the children and the actors. Both scrabbling on the floor to renew their ammo. Gardner takes shelter behind her bucket, but the children are relentless, throwing sponge after sponge in her direction.

Child armies can't last though.

And the King declares victory.

The soldiers are storming the church.

We go in, taking our pews. Red light and thick haze fills the church, giving an alarmingly fiery aura to this stand-in Notre Dame.

I needn't have worried. It gets worse.

Sword fights.

Sword fights in the church.

The echo of the blades clashing reverberating off of the walls.

I twist around in my seat, not wanting to miss a moment.

I fucking love a sword fight.

And then after a little epilogue, we're done.

The audience rises to their feet. An ovation.

We follow the cast out. The sky is dark. The air still.

Good and righteousness have been restored.

And I really need to wash my hand.

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And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids

I don't know who's idiot idea it was for me to book two shows on opposite ends of London within a single afternoon, but I refuse to believe it was mine.

I'm here. Sort of. Stumbling along. After the knee clunks it took me to get to my first venue of the day, I'm not sure all of me is going to make it. I'm already keelhauling one leg around behind me.

But it's okay. I'm nearly there. Just around the corner and... hang on. I recognise this corner. I mean, it's Grey's Inn Road, and I work just a few minutes’ walk away from here, but when the Chapel Playhouse said they were here, I didn't realise they meant they were here. Here here. As it, right here.

I must have walked past this spot a hundred times. And I never noticed there was a theatre lurking.

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To be fair to myself, it looks like a bar from the outside. Looks like a bar from the inside too. Even I there are neon lights zig zagging across the ceiling, making me feel like I’m somehow dropped into the Saved By The Bell theme song. Are we sure there's a theatre in here? Wait, there are show posters pinned up on the notice board over there. And small flyers advertising the play I'm here to see littering the tables.

This must be the place.

I look around, trying to locate the box office. Always tricky to find in pub theatres because you never know what form they're going to take. A laptop set up on a table at the back? A desk tucked away inside a broom-closet? A full-out boxed-in box office? A hole-in-the-wall upstairs? A corner of the bar? It could be anything.

And yet, I don't see anything that looks likely. No signs. No laptops. No furtive creatures drooling over their clipboards.

I'm going to have to do the worst possible thing in the world. I'm going to have to ask.

Ergh. I hate asking.

I hobble my way over to the bar.

"Where do I go for the box office?" I ask the young woman who seems to be the only employee in this place.

"That's me," she says with a smile. "Have you bought a ticket?"

She reaches for the list, sitting on the counter behind her.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles?"

She looks down the list. "Maxine?"

"Yup."

"That's great," she says, ticking me off.

Right then. I'm checked in, I guess. I should probably find somewhere to sit down before my knees' angry screams start to draw attention from the other people here.

There's a massive pistachio green booth over by the door, and I stagger over to it. It's big enough to seat eight, but I don't care. Me and my knee have needs. And those needs involve hogging an entire booth to ourselves.

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Five minutes later and there's someone sitting at the other end of my booth.

I don't know exactly when it happened. I was sitting quite contentedly, editing a blog post, as I usually am while waiting for a show to start, and then I look up, and there he is. Sitting as far away from me as he possibly can, but there's no denying the fact that he is in the same booth as me, and I do not approve.

I look around. There are a lot more people than when I first got here. All the tables over by the window are taken.

But those tables in the middle? Yeah. They're all empty. He could be sitting there. By himself. No near me. Having a great time, I'm sure. But he's here. In my booth.

I ask you. The sheer nerve of some people.

Coming over here, taking our booths...

I go back to editing my blog post. But I notice something. In the corner of my screen. The time. It's one minute past five. One minute past when this show should have started.

I look around.

The bloke in my booth is still there. He hasn't got a drink or anything, which makes me think he's probably there for the show. And if he hasn't gone in, then it's likely that I haven't inadvertently missed the theatre bell.

But then he's a booth-stealer, so what does he know? If he can miss all the rules of a functioning society that state, quite clearly, that you do not go over and sit in someone else's booth unless they invite you, especially when there are empty chairs at empty tables, then... who knows what else he could be missing.

But there are more people here than just my booth-interloper.

There are whole tables full of them.

I look over them, trying to work out whether they are theatre people, or just early evening drinkers.

They do all have drinks, which would support the later theory. But it would be quite the coincidence if this place filled up a few minutes before a show started with multiple groups of people who just fancy a pint early on a Saturday evening.

Stil, my anxiety is twanging.

It's five minutes past now.

That's really, properly, late.

The door to the theatre is over the other side of the bar. There's a big sign over there. Chapel Playhouse, it says, with an arrow pointing down at the door.

The door is closed. Very closed.

And when the door is closed, it's usually a sign that the house is, well, not open. Unless of course, it was open, and now it is closed again.

Is it possible that every single person in this pub has missed the start of the show, and that the actors are down there, in the theatre space, proclaiming their lines to an empty room, wondering why the show is so quiet tonight?

I mean... this is the fringe. It's more than possible. But somehow it doesn't seem likely.

Chances are, we really are just running five minutes late.

I check my phone. Scrap that. Ten minutes late.

Somehow, this chain of logic isn't doing much to help my ever growing anxiety.

And when the door does open up from the inside, and someone comes out to talk to the woman behind the bar, my nerves are so frazzled I almost jump out of my seat.

I really need to keep my shit together. I'm seeing a play about ghost hunters. I can't afford to get all jumpy before I've even gone in.

I almost drop my phone as the bell rings out.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes the voice from the bar. "The house is now open."

Thank fuck for that. I was almost on the brink of asking again, and I'm really not sure my angst could have taken that.

I make my way around to the other side of the door, and go down the stairs.

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There's no ticket checker, because there are no tickets. No admission pass. Nothing. The bar staff here must have hella good memories to keep track of everyone who got their name ticked off the list.

Through the door is brightly lit stairwell. The sort you stumble upon in office blocks where the fire alarm goes off. Except this one is covered in swirls of paint and multicoloured polka dots. Maybe not an office block then. This is primary school territory.

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Down the stairs and we are led through to a room darkened by blackout curtains.

Chairs surround a floor-level stage on all four sides.

It's really cold down here.

Like, properly cold.

It's bliss.

"It's freezing," hisses one audience member to his friend.

An icy blast catches me as I walk around the seats, trying to pick which one I want.

Must be the ghosts.

Although, this doesn't look the kind of place they'd usually haunt. No crumbling stone walls or haunted mahogany panelling down here. The blackout curtains can't hide the fact that this theatre lives another life as a function room. The walls are white. The ceiling covered in modern piping. There's even a hatch in the wall that must be roped into serving tea and birthday cake during the daytime.

It's not exactly the venue I'd pick to stage a show about ghost hunters investigating an old country house. If anything, I would have thought the Chapel's sister-venue would have been a better bet. The Bread and Roses in Clapham with its sash windows and creaking back stairs might have been more in keeping with the theme of the play. But I suppose programming something in SW4 might have stretched the definition of Camden too far even for the Camden Fringe festival.

Over on one side, the row of three chairs has been given a platform to sit on, so I go for one of those. The fact that the seat I pick is also next to a pillar, thus protecting my right side from any creeping ghosts, has nothing to do with my decision-making processes, and frankly, I find it insulting that you would even suggest it. I have told you countless times of my ambition to meet a theatre ghost, there is no way I would ever put an obstacle between myself and that glorious happenstance.

There are little cards on all the seats. They say "THANK YOU" in all caps, which is nice, if a little bit shouty. They give a hashtag for the show, and a url for the company.

I suppose I could probably look up all the cast names and whatnot there, but we both know I'm not going to do that.

No freesheet. No crediting. That's how it works on the marathon.

At least I'm happy with my seat though. The other audience members appear to be engaged in a game of musical chairs, sitting down, taking in their view, then jumping up to go test out somewhere else. Everyone wants to sit in the front row. But also, no one wants to sit in the front row.

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Because ghosts.

Someone comes to sit on my platform.

I look over.

It's the booth-stealer.

Ergh.

Fucking. Rude.

But also I'm grateful that I'm not sitting up here alone.

The lights going out puts a stop to these shenanigans.

An actor appears, making his way through the seats to reach the stage-area, lighting his way with a small torch and... eating a brownie?

It looks like a good brownie.

I wouldn't mind a brownie right now.

More torches flash around the audience as more cast members appear.

We have found ourselves in the middle of a ghost hunt. Two ghost hunts. One of them involving an actual ghost.

I squint against the beams of torchlight as they pass in front of me. Usually I disapprove lights being shone around the audience. It's my pet theatre-device hate. But I'm appreciating the use of it here.

Adds to the voyeuristic element. Perhaps its because I just came from that immersive show set in a private house, but I have the feeling of a being lurking in the shadows, watching these ghost hunters. And I begin to wonder, perhaps I am the ghost in this hunt.

I'm very into this idea.

I fully intend to be a theatre ghost when the time comes (I'm relying on you to scatter my ashes somewhere which will facilitate this goal, I hope you know that).

But as one of the hunters (who already has a ghost on call, and is actually on the search for a family heirloom) comes creeping around behind the chairs, flashing her UV torch over our shoulders, I begin to grow unsure about the whole thing.

She leans over me, the torch waving around next to my ear, and I can't stop myself from shuddering.

Being a ghost would be cool, I tell myself, waiting for her to retreat. All those shows I could watch for free, dressing rooms I could lurk in, and programmes I could apply my red pen too.

She moves on. I can breath again.

Being a theatre ghost would be... the fucking best.

At the curtain call, the ghost hunter's camera-person takes a bite out of her brownie, bowing as she chews away at it.

Shit.

Are there ghost-brownies?

What if there aren't ghost-brownies?

If there aren't ghost-brownies, I'm not sure I'll be able to cope.

As I start to rethink my plans for the afterlife, the writer comes out on stage. You know the drill, he thanks is for coming and asks us to tell our friends. I mean… I guess you’re my friend… so… job done?

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Tea and Brandy

I think I got a little too excited about living in a sorta-central location. Just because I can walk to places doesn't mean that I should. Buses exist. The tube is really rather good, and is worth tapping in that Oyster card every so often, when the places you need to go are not all that close. Like Little Venice. I mean, yes. It only took a little over an hour to get here. But not walking here on a warm and muggy day would have meant that I didn't turn up all sweaty and gross. Sorry about that.

But I'm here, at least. Outside the Bridge House. Home of the Canal Cafe Theatre. My second pub theatre in as many days.

And I'm back on the Camden Fringe fest trail again. Which I am most grateful for as I was a little bit unsure of this place. Their website claims they're a member-only theatre. I don't know exactly what that means, but there seems to be a charge attached to the first ticket that you buy. That gets you a membership card. Valid for a year. And while one pound fifty isn't all that much, and I do rather like the idea of owning a cute little membership card, I'm not going to be coming back here. Not before next year anyway. So, I am very happy that through the miracle of fringe theatre, I get to bypass all that nonsense and get straight in there.

Although, now that I'm standing here, I realise I should have probably done the whole membership thing. So much for my investigative approach to exploring London theatres.

Eh. Someone else can write a blog post about it.

They probably already have.

Anyway, too late to do anything about it now. I'm going in.

It's a nice looking pub. All white stucco frontage. And right next to the bridge going over the canal. Explaining the names of both the theatre and the pub.

There's a little courtyard garden. Very little. But it's lined with a rainbow of blooming floorboxes and is packed full of people sitting behind the bars of the smart iron railing.

There's a sign on the glass pane over the door. "Entrance to the Canal Cafe Theatre and Bar." So at least I know I'm in the right place.

Passing through the door I go from stucco-fronted sophistication to poster-ridden fringe venue.

The walls are covered in posters and flyers, and chalkboard giving a rundown of everything that's on.

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Also the claim that the theatre is "Home to the world's longest running sketch show." Sounds like great fun, but it's on at 9.30pm, which is well past my bedtime, so I'm never going to see it.

There's a man in the foyer and he smiles as I come in.

"Box office?" I ask.

He steps aside revealing another bloke, this one tucked up inside of the cupboard underneath the stairs, like Little Venice's answer to Harry Potter.

I give him my name and he looks over his list. "One ticket?"

Yup. Just me on my lonesome. As ever.

Theatrical marathons as not a way to make friends. Or even keep friends...

"We'll be opening in about ten minutes," he says, handing me an admission pass from the box. "Take a drink because it gets warm up there."

My eyebrows shoot up. "Greaattt," I say, my keenness levels dropping fast. I've seen what happens when pub theatre's get warm. It's not fun.

Knowing what I know, and seeing what I've seen, you'd think I'd follow his advice and get a drink.

But I'm a stingy fucker, and still smarting from the money I dropped at Opera Holland Park, so I head out to the courtyard instead, and find a posing table to lean against and catch what little breeze I can.

The sun is still up and the bants-game is strong out here.

I let my attention wander while proofreading a blog-post, listening in to all the chatter going on around me.

I love listening to theatre chatter. Especially fringe theatre chatter. It's so marvellously unself aware of all the gossip being laid down in public.

A woman just a few feet away from me is an actor, and she is bringing stories to her table.

Stories that I will not be repeating.

"How long does it take to pick up tickets?" she adds, presumably realising that the show tonight is not about her.

"No time at all," says one of her attentive audience members.

"Like a minute, or...?”

They debate back and forth on the length of time it takes to give your name at box office. Long enough to have actually gone inside, given a name, and got an admission pass. Three times over.

She eventually decides to stop with this procrastination and actually get her ticket. Returning all of thirty seconds later.

"There's no upstairs bar," she announces, scandalised, on her return. "Maybe we should get drinks now?"

Her group agree that drinks now is a good idea.

"I know someone in the play," she says. "So afterwards I'll have to say hello, tell them it was fantastic... So... maybe drink first?"

For once I'm not annoyed to be in an audience of people who know the cast. Fuck. This level of cynicism is feeding my soul with pure hell-grown ambrosia.

The group head back in. Presumably to gain liquid-enthusiasm from the bar.

I join the queue that is heading up the stairs, as apparently, the house has opened without my noticing.

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There's a ticket checker at the top, and I give her my admission pass.

"Would you like a programme?" she says, holding out a folded piece of paper.

You bet I would.

"Sit anywhere you like," she offers, with a wave of her hand.

I go in.

Gosh. Cabaret style. Again. That's two pub theatres in a row with it.

Not quite as pleasing as the set up at RamJam. The tables are plasticky and red instead of the mismatched wood over at Kingston. It's also a bit more on the squishy side here.

And as we know, there's no bar up here. So, we won't be getting table service. Someone that I've never understood when combined with this setup. Like seriously, what's the point of all these tables if you aren't going to bring me a drink?

No matter. I have more pressing things to think on. Like, where am I going to sit?

While the tables are taking up most of the room, there seems to be a raised section at the back with a more traditional format. With chairs set out in rows. I could sit there. I should sit there, really, considering that I'm here alone. Leave the tables to the groups.

But like... I'm here to get the full Canal Cafe experience. And I'm an arse.

So I take one of the tables at the back.

It's a double table. Two of them pushed together. Because that's the type of mood I'm in right now.

But as the theatre begins to fill up, and the tables get claimed, a couple of people join me at mine. And that's fine. I guess.

Across the room, I hear the tiny chink of spoon against saucer. I look over a see a man with a literal teapot and teacup, set down neatly on a tray. He even has an itty bitty milk jug sat on one side.

The Canal Cafe may not have a bar up here, but they sure as hell are living up to their name.

I'm finally seeing the purpose of the cabaret tables.

It's not for the wine glasses (although the table next to me appears to have their bottle cooling in an actual ice bucket right now). Oh no. It's for cream teas and theatre. I mean, granted, there are no scones on his tray. At least none that I can see. But the potential is there. I've always been fairly against the idea of mixing tea with theatre. I think it's weird. But I suspect what really puts me off is the sight of lines of people struggling with the samovar and then not being able to figure out what to do with their cup. This tray thing is a game-changer.

"Sorry," says the ticket checker, grabbing the back of one of the spare chairs at my table. "I've just got two coming up who need to sit here."

And sure enough, two people come into the theatre and take the two spare chairs.

I appear to now be sitting at the table of misfit toys. A raggle-taggle bunch made up of the friendless, and the watchless.

As I wait for the show to kick-off, I have a look at the programme. Well, we know it's a freesheet. But I appreciate the effort. Pity it didn't go as far as running off a test copy, because once again we're seeing the dreaded "forgot to click the flip-on-short-edge checkbox." No matter. I like reading things upside down.

It's an interesting freesheet actually. The biographies of characters are mixed in with the cast, so there's a brief moment when you're left wondering which drama school Mary the Maid went to, or what position the actor Laura Gamble had in the royal household. As for the writer of Brandy, Matthew Davies, he has forgone all attempts at a biography and instead spends a solid paragraph telling us that Queen Anne has been forgotten to British history. Yes, that Queen. The one which Saint Olivia Colman won an Oscar for playing only last year. That Queen Anne. Okay, Matthew Davies. You do you, I suppose. Don't let Hollywood get in the way of a neglected-narrative narrative.

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The ticket checker closes the curtain, blocking the bright light from the stairwell, and then disappears into the tech booth. Gosh. I wonder if she also has to serve the tea.

As the lights dim, a woman sitting a table ahead of me loudly shifts her chair over to the right, blocking the view of someone at my table. I'm outraged on behalf of the misfits, but not for long. Because the play is beginning, and there is some serious big-dress action going on over there on stage.

The 18th-century really knew how to fashion. The silks. The panniers. The wigs!

Bring back petticoats, that's what I say. Even better, crinolines.

Might make getting on the tube a bit awkward, but just think of the personal space we'd gain. Rando strangers wouldn't be able to get within ten feet before bumping their ankles against the metal hoops hidden under our skirts.

Light floods into the theatre as the curtains are pulled back one more. The box officer is there, with two latecomers. He indicates they should go in, and as soon as they step in from the landing, he closes the curtain behind them, sealing them in with us.

They stand there, at the side of the room, blinking in the darkness, looking around as they try to locate spare seats.

Sensing their trauma, the ticket checker, or should I say the tech person, emerges from her box and leads them both to the back.

There's a small cry as one of them fails to find her seat. But they must have settled, because the tech person returns to her box, and I hear no more signs of distress from the back.

Although, I might be feeling a little bit of it myself. Only a few minutes in, and I'm already seeing the problem with this play. The stage may be raised, but not quite enough to lift the bed-bound Queen Anne into visibility about all the crowded heads of those sitting around tables.

I lean back against the wall, finding a slither of sight-line that cuts across the room, and there I stay.

But as Mary the Maid and Queen Anne dismiss each other, I'm startled as the curtains up once more. This time it is not the box officer standing on the other side. The silhouette is altogether more dramatic.

There are panniers. Wide ones.

It's Sarah Churchill. Or rather Zoe Teverson in the role of Churchill. As played by Rachel Weisz in that film we're all supposed to have collectively forgotten.

She stalks through the tables towards to stage, paying the audience as little mind as if we were peasants clinging to the bottom of her shoe.

Her great height has her souring after the heads of the audience. As she bends down to pour herself a glass of brandy, I realise this whole arrangement was a clever directorial decision. By blocking the view, our attention is fully diverted towards Churchill. Just as every head in Queen Anne's court must be have turned towards this self-made woman.

Brilliant.

As the house lights go up, and the tech person emerges from her booth to pull open the curtain, there is a distinct lack of movement towards the exit. This is something I've noticed about fringe theatre. No one likes leaving.

Well, screw this, I'm going home.

I stomp my way down the stairs, followed by precisely no one.

Reaching the foyer once more, I turn around for one last look.

Still not sure about that sketch show, but I think I could be tempted to fork out one pound fifty on a membership card in order to come back. If only to sample the cream teas.

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Back Room Brahms

I'm in Kingston!

I've only been to Kingston once before. Ooo, must be six or seven years ago now. For a job interview. At the Rose Theatre. Didn't get it. Probably for the best. It's is a trek and a half to get down here.

Anyway, I am back. And not going to the Rose. Not tonight. I am going somewhere my pre-marathon self hadn't even heard of.

RamJam Records. Which sounds well dodge to me, but there's no avoiding it. They have a play on tonight, so here I am. Standing outside The Grey Horse pub, which is a short walk from the station, and is apparently the home of this mysterious theatre.

It looks promising. There's a poster for the play I'm seeing in the window: Clara. And a sign over the gated side-entrance which say The Ram Jam Club. Looks like I'm in the right place.

I duck in between the tables out on the pavement and through the gated entrance, leading into a sort of covered outdoor corridor, filled with comfortable looking booths, each with a pair of newspapers laid out and waiting on them. The Metro. With a single HB pencil sat on top. To do the crosswords, I presume.

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Down the other side, is a counter, and at the end, a woman perches, legs crossed as she sits on the bar stool, the paper open on her knees, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette ends by her elbow. She looks very content.

Me on the other hand, I'm confused. This place isn't looking much like a theatre. And while this marathon has taught me that theatres can look like pretty much anything they damn well want, they tend to draw the line at living in corridors. I mean, they could. I guess. But the sightlines would be terrible.

I keep on going, and when I reach the end, turn left, through the doors, and into the building.

This looks much more promising. There's a foyer. It's dark. Theatre loves dark foyers.

There's a door. It's painted black. Theatre loves doors. And black.

And best of all, the Ram Jam logo is painted on this black door.

There's also a massive mirror leaning against the wall. And a motorbike. I'm not sure on theatre's stance on motorbikes, but they sure love mirrors.

I think I might have found it...

Except the door is closed, and there's no one's here.

No box office.

Not even a person with a laptop.

Hmmm.

Not sure what I'm meant to do now.

I keep on going. I seem to be at the back of the pub. There's some sort of restaurant action happening, with wait-staff running around prepping for evening service.

Okay. No. Not there.

I go back to the corridor, loop around, and slip through a side door into the pub-proper.

And then I go to the bar.

I didn't want it to come to this. But needs must. I'm going to have to ask.

"Hi," I say, when it's my turn at the bar. "Where do I go for the theatre?"

The girl behind the bar points the way. "Go straight through there," she says. "Through the restaurant and you'll see a big mirror."

"Okay..."

"I think..." she checks the clock. "Yes, they should be open now."

I go through the restaurant, and find myself back in the dark foyer. With the mirror. And the motorbike. And the black door with the Ram Jam logo.

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The door opens.

A young woman comes out. She rushes off. The door closing behind her.

Huh.

I guess I'll just wait here then...

Turns out I'm not the only one who's been waiting for this door to open.

Someone emerges from the corridor, and makes a dive for the door.

The young front of houser scoots back, darting after the trespasser. "We'll open any second," she tells them, as she leads them back into the dark foyer.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to storm in!" apologies the trespasser.

She and I smile at each other, and stand around, waiting for the door to open. Officially, this time.

Soon enough it does.

"You can come. The house is now open," says the front of houser, propping open the door.

So I go in.

Or at least, I try to. I only make it three steps inside the door before I'm forced to stop.

"Oh wow," I say. "It's nice in here."

And it is nice in here.

It's like a pub within a pub.

There's a neat bar set into the painted brick wall over on the left. It's laden with glass jars full of snacky things.

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The walls are covered with records and album art.

Faerie lights hang from the ceiling.

Small tables are dotted around everywhere. Looks like we're doing cabaret-style tonight.

"It's cute, isn't it?" says the front of houser, grinning over her shoulder as she heads behind the bar.

I manage to stop staring, and meet her over there.

"I have to say, this is not what I expected," I say. It really isn't.

"I like it when it's like this, with the tables on the stage," she agrees. "Have you booked?"

I tell her I have, and give my name.

She ticks me off the list.

"And can I get you anything?" she asks.

I'm so taken in with the atmosphere, I find myself ordering a gin and tonic.

"House gin, or something fancy?" she asks.

"House is fine. I'm not fancy." Well... not when it comes to alcohol anyway.

But she hands me the glass with those fancy cuts crisscrossing themselves all over it, and a bottle of tonic, which I promptly set about spilling all over the bar. I grab some napkins to clean it up.

Hey, I told you. I ain't fancy.

Realising I'm making more of a mess then I'm managing to clean up, I decide to make my escape, and I take myself and my drink off to find a seat.

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The front of houser was right, it is nice with the tables on the stage. Even though the stage is so small there's only space for two of them.

Instead, our focus for the evening looks to be the piano. Two long mirrors have been slung up over it, to reflect the pianist's face. But the pianist hasn't taken her seat. She stands, dressed in a long Victorian gown, sighing deeply as she pours a drink from her crystal decanter.

"Don't be shy," she says to a newcomer, as they dither about which seat to pick.

"Is it better to sit close?" asks the newcomer.

"Come close to me," says the pianist, beckoning them forward. "Welcome." And then she sighs again. A sigh laden with despair and agony.

I decide to follow her advice and pick a table near to the front. But also close to the wall. Because while this marathon may have knocked a good deal of my fear of immersive theatre out of me, I'm still not on board with the whole interaction thing.

"Don't be shy, come closer," says the pianist to the next group making their way over from the bar.

Freesheets have been left sitting out on the tables. I pick one up and give it a read. Mainly so I can stop calling the pianist, the pianist. She's Elena Mazzon. And we're here to see her play Clara.

After a list of all the music being performed, we also get a rundown of all the characters. Little two-line biographies of 19th-century musicians and composers, which is a very nice touch. I like that.

The space begins to fill up. With even the two tables on the stage now taken.

The front of houser makes her way between them, taking names from those who haven’t gone up to the bar.

"Is it okay to get two tickets?" one person asks.

"Oh sorry!" says the front of houser. "I missed you. Of course." And they go about settling the business of tickets right there.

Now that is some impressive table service going on here.

It's past the start time now. The front of houser comes up to the table next to me. The one with the woman who asked if it's better to sit close. "Did you say you were holding for two?" asks the front of houser.

The woman says yes. She's still waiting for two friends.

"Hmm," says the front of houser. "Tell you what, I'll hold for a few minutes, and if they turn up after that, they can join you."

But there's no need to hold anything, because here they are, rushing in with a flurry of apologies as they make their way through the tables to the front.

They settle down, and we're ready. Lights dim. Mazzon steps forward. She begins her story. Or rather, the story of Clara Shumann. Famed pianist. And wife of the composer.

She's been asked out on a date. In a letter. Which is a very pleasingly formal way to go about things.

There's some problems though. He's a wee bit younger (eh...) and with a whiff of scandal about him, after living in the same house as our Clara and her not-dead-yet husband.

She asks a guy sitting on stage what he does on dates.

“Kiss?” he suggests.

How very forward, observes our Clara

“What about you?” she asks the last sitting on the next table to me.

“Get a drink first?”

Mazzon nods. Yes, a drink is a good start.

She asks lady sitting at the front to keep hold of the letter.

"Don't read it," she begs. Some things are private. Even when your laying bare your heart.

And then she sits at the piano, and plays.

Now, I'll always be a Baroque girl when it comes to classical music. I prefer the precision of the 18th century, to the Romantic flurries of the 19th. But man, those cascades of melting notes are doing something to me.

Perhaps it's the fact we're sitting so close, or that we've been invited into the musician's life and heart. Or maybe it's just the gin and tonic having its way with my insides. But I am seriously into this right now. To feel the rhythms at odds with the life of their creator, the endless births and demands of being a woman acting to mute the music. To hear how a marriage between equals is impossible when society places you on two different levels. And that education and talent mean nothing to the baby crying out for his mother.

No wonder she had been sighing into her glass.

I'd be sighing too.

Perhaps the best we can hope for, after a lifetime of work, is a nice young man, with long blond hair, sending us a letter, asking us out on a date. Bonus points if its Brahms.

As the play comes to a close, we applaud.

“Okay, I'll say something” says Mazzon as the clapping refuses to end.

She thanks us. And the director, who is sitting there on one if the stage tables.

And then it's time to go.

Except no one wants to leave.

Some people go over to talk to her. One woman carries over a chair to the door to hold it open. “Let’s get some air in here,” she says.

I wouldn’t mind staying. I do like it here. But it's a long way back to Hammersmith. Time to go.

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The pits

Rain! Oh, glorious, beautiful, cooling rain. I am completely soaked after legging it from Edgeware Road station and I don’t even care. I may have flashed several drivers as a very insistent gust of wind worked its way under my skirt, and I’m not even slightly embarrassed. The studs are coming unstuck from my boots after traipsing through a puddle and… okay, that bothers me slightly. But it’s not hot anymore, and this fact alone is enough to send me skipping off to the next theatre on my list: The Cockpit.

When I saw this place was in Marylebone, somehow I didn’t picture what looks like an office-block left over from the seventies as my destination. But here we are, and there the Cockpit is in all its long rectangular windowed glory.

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Still, I’m feeling very positive about tonight. That Salome I saw at the Brunel Museum, the one with Sexy John the Baptist? Yup, that was a Cockpit production. And they sent a really super confirmation email. I don’t talk about confirmation emails nearly enough. Mainly because most of them are super boring and follow similar formats: directions, start times, all that guff. Usually, the only time I even think about confirmation emails is when I am getting annoyed at them for not including the postcode of the bloody fucking venue in them… but it’s fine. All fine.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that theatres rarely use the confirmation email as an opportunity for creativity. Oh yeah, they might make the background yellow, or include an image if they’re feeling frisky, but there’s a traditional format for these things, and they tend not to go off book.

Not so the Cockpit. At first glance it might look exactly the same as every confirmation email that you’ve ever received after booking theatre tickets online, but that only makes the reward of actually reading it all the sweeter. Categories are subdivided into “the ticket collection bit” and “the access bit,” clearly taking their cues from the Friends episode naming conventions. The tone is friendly. The advice clear. And at the bottom, they sign off with a bonus section “Treat-for-reading-to-the-bottom-bit,” which admittedly is only a pile of restaurant suggestions, but is written so charmingly that I almost do want to use the 10% discount for Cockpit patrons that’s on offer.

Anyway, best go inside now.

There’s a small, square, foyer, with the box office on the right, set behind a glass window.

I give my name to the young woman sitting behind it.

“Here you go,” she says, sliding the ticket under the glass without further question.

Well, that was easy.

From here, I guess I suppose I’m supposed to go through the doors.

There’s another foyer through here, although it’s the strangest theatre foyer I’ve even been in. Tucked away on the left is the bar. Straight ahead are the doors leading to the auditorium. And everywhere else…

I begin to think I must have got turn around somewhere and accidentally walked into a dentists’ waiting room. There’s a painting on the wall which seems to be of a hamster helping two showgirls wind up some pink wool. Benches, a table, and a counter running across one wall are made of something that looks a cow gave birth to a block of marble. There are plants. And macramé potholders. There are fish tanks. Two of them. With handwritten instructions not to tap the glass. And most terrifying of all, there’s a mannequin lurking in the corner, wearing a scarf and a beanie and advertising a Jazz in the Round t-shirt, which apparently costs fifteen pounds.

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Whoever writes the confirmation emails is clearly also in charge of the signage, as a laminated sign indicating that drinks can be taken into the auditorium is followed up by a bracketed note that “if you bring them back to the bar at the end of the show, we’ll love you for it.”

The one pinned to what looks like a broken chair, and leant against the barrier closing off the theatre doors, has less in the way of amusing brackets, but does at least promise the ringing of a bell when the doors open.

There are also sofas. Covered with red sheets. I try not to contemplate what the sheets may be covering as I sink into an armchair. And sink. And continue to sink.

I don’t think I have ever been hugged so completely as I have by this chair.

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It’s too much. I can’t cope with this level of intimacy. I get up again and go to stand over by the cow-print counter.

From my new position, I watch as a woman examines the armchair and then, putting down her bag on the ground, goes to sit down. I watch, fascinated, as she sinks further and further into its red embrace. A second later, she’s up again, looking at the chair. I can feel her having the same thought processes as me. The cogs spin, and then clunk into place, decision made, she comes to stand next to me at the dairy counter. The refuge of the chair-hugged.

The sofas however, they seem to be safe. A couple sitting over by the wall are having a great time on theirs. Chatting away, either not noticing or not caring that every minute sees them slipping further into the upholstered innards.

Just as I’m beginning to suspect that this might all be a fever dream caused by the dramatic change in weather, there’s a very loud clang of a theatre bell.

“Ladies and gents, the house is now open.”

The couple pull themselves up from the sofa, and the people sitting over in the bar section make their way over to the theatre doors.

I join the queue.

“Just down the stairs and on the right,” says the ticket checker as he tears my ticket. Before adding a dark warning about not talking photos.

Oh dear.

Through the door, down the stairs, and on the right, and gosh – the Cockpit is a lot bigger than I expected.

Perhaps it was the macramé that threw me off, but I was thinking this place was going to be a pocky studio. But it’s nothing of the sort. There’s fixed seating on three sides, long benches that stack up in raked rows. The stage is floor level. A glass tech box hangs high overhead on one wall.

There are freesheets sat waiting for us on the seats. Always a sign of a quality theatre in my experience. They’ve neglected to place any on the front row, which to me demonstrates a clear understanding of their audiences.

There’s already actors on stage, which may go someone to explain the no photography rule. It certainly can’t be the set, as that seems to be entirely composed of the contents of a rubbish bin, strewn across the floor.

I pick my way around the edge of the stage, to get to the other side. And find a spot in the second row.

The bench cushion slips out of place as I sit down. I shift my weight in an attempt to bring it back into line, but that only sends the other side flying off the edge of the bench.

I resolve to sit very still.

The show’s only an hour. It’s another Camden Fringer. So I won’t have to be here long.

I’m watching Earthbound, which from the show description all sounds a bit surreal with a dash of sci-fi.

The sound design is entirely in support of that, with a series of ethereal beeps making the parts of my brain that definitely believe in aliens stand up and point and say: “I told you so!”

Just as my legs decide that they too want to get in on the action, and start preparing for the journey to Nevada to join in with the mission to storm Area 51 that has taken over Facebook, the play begins.

Four characters all come to an abandoned mine in order to getting some thinking done. As we all do when we have stuff on our minds, I’m sure. All driven by loneliness and the need for answers, they come to perhaps the loneliest place of all. And there they find: Violet. A girl in a silly hat, who only speaks in echoes, leaving confusion and attraction in her wake. They bring her gifts, offer her cake, and flowers, and to take her away from this place. But she is as apprehensive as she is enigmatic.

An hour later, I still don’t understand what’s going on. But I’ve found out the words to Where have all the flowers gone, and got a hankering for some dungarees, so that’s something.

On the way out, I snap a picture of the theatre.

I’m a rebel, you see.

Especially after the front of house staff have gone out.

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I live here on the corner, I am sucking in the fumes

It’s the start of Camden Fringe today! To celebrate, I’m watching a show that is not in Camden. And not the one I’d actually booked to see.

I was supposed to be at 365 tonight, a play I know nothing about other than it was going to be performed in the Phoenix Arts Club, which, let me tell you, is a tricky venue to pin down. But the show was cancelled. Giving me a Monday off. Now I can’t be wasting a Monday night on Netflix, not when I still have over a hundred more theatres to get to, so I checked back in on the fringe, and found Class, a verbatim play, opening at the Tristan Bates. A West End theatre, as I’m sure you know. But only by way of its location. I would class it as a fringe venue really. Not that I’ve ever been.

The Tristan Bates has always confused me. Mostly because, even though I know where it is, right on the corner of Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I’ve never worked out how to get in. There’s the big square sign right there. But with a cafe on one side, and what looks like the entrance to the flats above on the other, I’ve been left with the impression that it must be some Platform 9 3/4 situation.

Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to work it out.

As I stand there, on that corner between Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I take my photos of the building, and realise maybe, that big yellow neon sign saying the actors centre, was where I was meant to be.

I have no idea what the actors centre is (lower case-ness and lack of apostrophe is all on them), but I have some vague recollection of seeing the logo on the Tristan Bates website while booking my ticket. So, that’s probably an indication that I should follow the yellow neon sign.

Inside, there’s a desk. It could be a box office. Hard to tell.

“I’m here to pick up a ticket…?” I say, letting the question mark drop into place at the end of my very hesitant sentence.

“Yes?”

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering how long we can keep this question-rally going before one of us hits a full stop right into the net.

The woman behind the counter looks something up on her computer before reaching into a small box. Admission tokens! Oh good. I made it.

I’m feeling rather over-confident now that I know I’m in the right place, so I attempt to lob over a difficult one.

“Is there a freesheet?” I ask.

The box officer gives me the kind of look that makes me think I just accidentally asked for an autographed photo of Trump, in the act of Tweeting on his golden throne.

I press on. “Like, a cast sheet?” The look of confused horror doesn’t clear. “It doesn’t matter if there isn’t,” I add hurriedly. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“No,” says the other lady behind the counter, hurredly getting up and coming out from behind the desk. “But we do have this.” She grabs one of the flyers from the rack and hands it to me. “It’s just a flyer,” she explains.

“That’s perfect, thank you!” I tell her. And it is perfect. There’s a cast list on the back. And a run down of the creatives. It’s everything I need on one smart piece of card.

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Now that’s sorted, I’m directed over to the bar. Down a small ramp, and around the corner.

It’s a bit nice in here. Cocktails are advertised as £5.50. There’s a box full of KitKats and Bounty Bars on display. And over on the other side, sofas are lined with a yellow brick wall and rows and rows of books.

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The sofas are taken, so I set up shop at the counter overlooking them. Thankfully, there’s a step underneath to help my launch myself up onto the bar stool – always a challenge for me, being on the smaller side and rather inept when it comes to balance.

Through the glass doors on the far wall, people come in and out, greeting those waiting on the sofas with hugs and kisses, and my heart begins to sink. It’s going to be one of those audiences, isn’t it? Where everyone knows everyone, and they are all connected to someone involved in the production. Great fun to be in those ranks. Really unpleasant when you’re the outsider.

An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen the doors are now open to...” I can't make out the rest. If they include instructions as to the location of the theatre, I can’t hear them.

I glance around, but no one else is moving. My neighbours on the counter haven’t even looked up.

Am I meant to go through the glass doors? They don’t look very likely. But then nothing about this place has looked very likely.

The box officer appears. “Are you here for the show?” she asks the group on the sofa. “The doors are now open.” They muddle to their feet, and then the box officer comes over to the counter. “Hello ladies! Did you hear the announcement? The doors are now open.”

Turns out the doors are back the way we came. Round the corner, up the ramp, past the box office and round. There’s a door lurking down here, with a chalkboard giving the show times. 7.45 - Class. The other time slots are all empty.

Through the door, and we’re in.

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It’s a neat little theatre. Brick walls painted black. A floor level stage. Loose chairs, but set on a raked platform.

I decide it’s time to return to my traditional seating choice: the end of the third row.

Bit of squidging past the person already in, but the seats are alright once you’re sat down. Leg room isn’t great, but hey, it’s the fringe! Shows are short, and being ever so slightly uncomfortable is part of the experience.

Lights dim, and the cast come on. Alyce Louise-Potter and Kelsey Short. All dungerees and earnest smiles.

They have earphones in. I can see the white wires dangling. No airpod nonsense here. They begin speaking, echoing the voices playing in their ears. They’re being interviewed. On the subject of class. What it is. What they define themselves as. Working class, it seems. That’s how this pair consider themselves.

With a switch from flat caps to retro fast food paper hats, they become a new pair. These ones aren’t so sure about their class. Working or middle? Hard to tell. One owns her own house, she says proudly. With five bedrooms. You can’t do that if you’re working class.

She’s not wrong.

Perhaps there are only two classes nowdays. The home owners and the home loanees. Everything else is pedantry. Accent. Education. How you hold your knife. All irrelevant in the face of an ability to acquire a mortgage.

On they go, switching it up, becoming different people as they wade through this quagmire of the class system, covering accents and jobs and stereotypes and pride.

It’s so refreshing to hear class being talked about with such openness and honestly, in the words of real people and not playwrights. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of verbatim theatre. Most people are quite dull without the and of a good editor. I mean, they’re probably not. I’m just a useless conversationalist and never know the right questions to ask. So like, I totally admit me finding people boring is entirely my own fault. That doesn’t stop me from having trouble listening to the chatter if strangers though.

But here the interactions are so fast, the bonds between the pairs so palpable, and the actors, so charming, I can’t help but smile as they wade into the family history of unnamed strangers.

Plus, it’s a fringe show. So it’s only a hour. Which is a mega bonus and aligns well with my in-bed-by-ten philosophy.

As we head out, everyone turns left, making their way back to the bar. They’re going to be making a night of it. No doubt they’ll joined by members of the production soon enough.

As for me, all on my lonesome and not friends with anyone in the cast, I go straight forward, pushing the door open and stepping back onto the corner between Earlham Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.

If I race for the tube, I might just make it back to Hammersmith before the clock strikes 9.30.

 

Playing with Dinosaurs

It's been a few days, hasn't it? I took a couple off from the marathon. A combination of the hell inferno, work inferno, and moving-to-Hammersmith inferno (temporarily... cats won't sit themselves, you know). But I'm back.

Turns out however, that even from my new, more reasonably central, location, Greenwich is still really, really far away. And I arrive at the Greenwich Theatre feeling a little battered and dazed.

The doesn't stop the bloke behind the box office giving me the biggest smile when I walk in though.

"Hello!" he calls over, in a manner far too cheerful for me to handle right now.

"Hi," I say, trying to conjure some enthusiasm, but really just wanting to sit down. "The surname's Smiles?"

He looks over the tickets, all laid out in regimented columns next to him.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" he asks, picking one up.

Ergh. I hate this question. Always a challenge at the best of times, but after brain melting-heats and a move which means I'm not even living in that postcode right now, I'm not sure I can answer without making use of a crib-sheet. It's like my Chemistry A-levels all over again.

But just as the silence stretches out for a beat too long, my mouth decides to take over and gives the answer my mind could not provide.

The box officer nods and hands over the ticket.

"Head over to the bar, just through there," he says, pointing off to the right.

It the same route I took to go to the main house all the way back in... gosh, it must have been right at the beginning of the year. February perhaps. One of the first theatres on the marathon. Well, in the first fifty, anyway.

Two front of housers flank the double doors, each with a pile of freesheets that they hand out to everyone walking through. That's what I like. Make sure everyone gets one.

Through the doors and onto the mezzanine that lines the sunken bar. I dump my bag on the counter and have a look at the sheet of paper I've been given. Little intro to the play, cast list, creative credits, bit of info about the company, and all the social handles. And it all fits on a single side of A4. The perfect freesheet.

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Except for the lack of a quotation mark right at the beginning. There's one at the end of the sentence. But not at the beginning. But no matter. I can't judge. If you follow me on Twitter (do you follow me on Twitter, by the way? I can't remember...) you'll know I made a serious fuck-up in a programme I made recently. So fucked-up was it that I had to print programme slips, which not only served to correct the mistake, but also to highlight it to anyone who hadn't already noticed it. So like, seriously, while I may point out a typo in these things, I will never, ever think badly of the person who put them together because of it. I know how hard this shit it to make happen. And typos are just a thing that exists. No matter how many times you proofread something.

I'm very much intrigued by one role. Buried half-way down the list of creatives, as if it wasn't the most fascinating thing in the word, is a Fossil Designer. I don't know what that involves, but Hannah Snaith, I salute you for your work. Whatever that is.

I don't need to tell you that I loved dinosaurs as a kid. Firstly, because every kid in the world loves dinosaurs. It's a phase they all go through. Like the Terrible Twos. The Dreadful Dinos. And secondly, because I did most of my growing up in the nineties. And the nineties were at peak-dinosaur fandom. While Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun meant that the twenties were flooded with ankh-necklaces and thrillers set in the shadows of the pyramids. The nineties had dinomania.

There was Jurrasic Park, of course. But also The Land Before Time. The puppet-led Dinosaurs sit-com. The cartoon Dink, the Little Dinosaur. And not forgetting the greatest of them all: Theodore Rex. The seminal Whoppi Goldberg vehicle which sees her non-nonsense cop paired with a new partner, who just happens to be a Converse wearing dinosaur.

The nineties really were the golden age of creativity, ending in the early 2000s with... Dinotopia. A strange tale of a pair of brothers and their dad, who crash land on an island where they discover dinosaurs and humans coexisting quite happily. Dino-riding and love-triangles insue. It wasn't very good. And the love of dinosaurs soon died out.

But of course, like choker necklaces and bucket hats, they're now back.

All those kids who grew up reading dinosaur magazines, collecting dinosaur figurines, and convincing themselves they were going to uncover a pterosaur every time they went on a school trip to Lyme Regis, are now grown up. And they're writing plays. And I'm watching one of them tonight.

I look around, trying to work out where the play will actually be. The doors to the main theatre are on the left and the right. There are no signs of the studio.

And then, from the other side of the bar area, one of the wall panels opens up, and a head sticks out. It's a door. And that's the studio. I'm baffled. I try to work out the geography of it all. I can't quite remember where everything is from my trip here half a year ago, but I think that the studio might, in fact, be right underneath the main house.

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"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a voice. "The house is now open."

From the bar, there's a great scraping back of chairs as everyone makes the mad dash towards the doors. Seating is unallocated and no one wants to be stuck at the back.

I go down the steps and join the scrum, but soon find myself having to hold back to avoid being trampled by the bar folk.

There's a young man tearing tickets on the door, but he can't keep up with the number of people pressing forward.

A woman joins him, her hands working to tear tickets as fast as possible.

"The show is sold out," she tells us. "So please sit right next to people."

"No gaps?" someone asks.

"That's right. And if they don't move, you can tell them that I told you not to leave any gaps."

Something tells me that Greenwich audiences are... tricky.

Eventually, I make it through the door, and into the theatre.

It's small, but not tiny. Not by studio standards anyway. The stage is floor level. And there's a platform on one end. The platform, however, is the only concession to rake in this space. With half the seating on it. And half at stage level. I decide to go for the front row on the platform, moving down as far as I can in the row, and sitting right next to the person on the end. As instructed.

As soon as I get settled, I realise that the platform is next to useless when there are three rows right in front of it. If any of the actors decide to sit down, they will be swallowed up behind the wall of bobbing heads.

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Oh, wait. Two people are sitting on stage. I can see them now. They're doing air steward movements with their hands, helping direct traffic as people come in.

"Please don't leave any gaps!" a front of houser shouts across the room. "We are completely sold out, so please move right down to the end of the rows."

Alright, love. We'll figure it out. That's the thing about theatre-goers. We like sitting down. And we'll find those empty seats. You don't need to worry about us.

But, she does worry. And the shouting continues until the last person is sat.

It's close in here. And not just because it's completely sold out. The low ceiling and dark walls aren't helping.

I get out my fan. The killer heatwave may be over, but it's still not exactly comfortable.

"That's a good idea," says my neighbour, indicating the fan.

"Yeah, I take it with me everywhere. An umbrella and a fan. Two essentials for British summers."

"I really need to get one," she says and I agree. Fans are great. Everyone should have one.

I shift slightly in my chair and jolt as I realise I'm pinned in place.

"Sorry!" says my neighbour, lifting her leg to free my skirts.

"No, it's my fault," I tell her. "This skirt is really big."

It's not actually that big. I'm not in one of my circle skirts today. But given half a chance, any skirt I'm wearing tends to floof all over the place. It's like they're trying to escape from me. Perhaps I don't treat my clothes well enough. Maybe I'll start using the delicate cycle on the washing machine.

It looks like we're starting. The two people sitting on stage, Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, are getting up. They're starting a lecture. About Mary Anning.

And, no... wait. Someone's interupting. Someone coming from the back of the studio. Someone wearing a long, 19th-century gown.

It's Mary Anning. She's not having all this nonsense being said about her. She's taking over.

And so she does. And she has no intention of indulging us in words. Words lie. Words are used to twist and trick.

I’m in full agreement. Words are bullshit. I may earn my crust by crushing words into a semblance of sense-making, but I still won’t trust them as far as I can typo them.

For Mary though, it's numbers that she cares about. Numbers of bones in her first major find. The number of coins she was paid for them. And the number made in profit as it was sold on.

Pulling in the other two to play all the characters in her story, she takes us from a childhood spent picking up curios to sell to tourists on the beach at Lyme Regis, to her discovery of the ichthyosaur, to teaching herself French so that she might read the work of Cuvier, to being rejected by the establishment for the terrible crime of not being a man.

As someone who is, shall we say, feeling a wee bit raw at the moment about not getting proper recognition for my own work, I am boiling inside at the treatment our Mary got. Taken advantage of because she lacked connections, and money, and breeding, and a penis. Slogging away in the rain and the cold and the winds, so that others found glory from her work.

From her bag, she brings out tiny examples of her curios. "I think we can trust them," she says, as her ensemble try to hold her back. She hands them out to the audience, instructing us to pass them along to the end of the rows. They work themselves along, getting turned over and peered at in the dim light.

Smooth on one side. Rough on the other.

I rub my thumb along the marble-like sheen of the shiny side when its my turn. Are these real? Or are these the work of our Hannah Snaith, the fossil designer? I can't say. They're fun to hold all the same. I don't want to pass mine along, but I also don't want to disappoint Mary Anning. So I hand it along to the next person.

At the end, we're given more numbers.

Number of people in the audience tonight, sixty. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning tomorrow if everyone in the audience tells five people down the pub tonight, 300. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning by Wednesday if all those people tell five people... oh something ridiculous like 90,000.

Well, as someone who was educated in a proto-feminist girls' school in Dorset, there was no way I was getting away without learning about Mary Anning. I can't claim my blog will reach 90,000 people, but you at least now know about her. So, that's one down.

Numbers done, we're invited to stay for a Q&A with Antonia Weir, who brought the spirit of Mary into our midst, and some other people that I'm sure are very interesting, but I'm not sticking around to get even more sticky.

It's a long-arse way home from Greenwich. Even longer than a plesiosaur's neck, I'd venture to say.

I wonder how many vertebraes long the DLR is... I bet Mary Anning would know.

Mount Bussey

Back in Peckham again tonight. I honestly don’t know what I did in life to deserve this.

It’s not Peckham itself, you understand. I don’t have any ill-feelings towards the place. Or any good feelings for that matter. I haven’t been enough to have formed any sort of opinion. I am Peckham agonistic, one might say.

No, what I harbour my annoyance towards, is the transport. My gawd. Waiting on platform two at Canada Water for a train that never comes, sweltering away without even the distraction of wifi… I cannot. I cannot. And I will not, ever again. Not once this marathon is over anyway.

For now, I must suffer through.

At least my next venue is right next to the station. I barely have to trip across the road to get there. 133 Rye Lane. Better known as the CLF Art Cafe. Or the Bussey Building. I think that’s what most people call it.

Half the building is hidden behind hoarding, but there’s a poster stuck outside showing me that I’m in the right place.

I head through the door and find myself in some sort of industrial-looking corridor. With bare pipes running along the wall, and chip-board ramps on the floor.

I worry that I might have accidentally walked into some sort of sweatshop, but no – there’s bunting strung up overhead. And one this this marathon has told me: theatres fucking love bunting. This has to be the place.

“Hello!” says a very friendly voice.

I look up. It’s my co-worker. Blimey. Okay.

“You don’t live round here, do you?” she asks.

“God no,” I reply, a touch too venomously. I try to recover. “I’m here for a show,” I say, pointing down the corridor to what I hope is the location of the theatre. “Such a journey to get here…”

“Is it?” She pauses. “You didn’t come here via Farringdon did you?”

“No. Should I have done?”

“The secret is the Thameslink.”

I groan. I fucking hate the Thameslink. “I fucking hate the Thameslink.”

“It’s better when you learn the train times.”

Yes, I suppose it must be.

We part. Her to go home. Me to plunge further down this corridor.

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I emerge on the other side in a small courtyard. Surrounded on all four sides by high brick walls, painted with not unattractive graffiti. I’ll admit, Peckham is a little bit cool. You don’t get this kind of location-setting in Finchley.

The door directly opposite has a sheet of paper pinned to the frame, with details of the play I’m seeing this evening. So, it looks like I’m in the right place. I go in, and immediately find myself in a stairwell.

With nowhere to go but up, I start climbing.

One floor. Then another. Then another. Turning and turning as I climb higher and higher.

And then I stop.

There’s a chain blocking my path.

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“Box Office opens at 7.15pm,” it says.

It’s ten past now.

A young man in hipster glasses appears from a side door.

“You’re here for…?” he asks, his words trailing off.

“Portents,” I tell him.

“Portents.” He nods. “It’ll open in about five munutes, the bar’s through there if you want to get a drink.”

I don’t particularly want a drink, but I follow his suggestion all the same.

The bar looks like it has a day job as a performance space. There’s a massive stage down the other end. It’s dark. Candles set on top the three tables barely punctuate the gloom. It’s quiet in here. Very quiet. There’s no music playing, and the two staff members behind the bar are whispering too each other as if trying to avoid breaking the very specific atmosphere.

The floor is bare concrete. The ceiling a mass of wiring.

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But there are three industrial size fans and they are blasting out one hell of a breeze.

I stand against the wall, enjoying the fiercely blowing fans and try not to creep out the bar staff with my presence. I can’t help but think I’m the cause of all this quiet.

I check my phone. Five minutes has passed. It must be time to go in.

But when I head back towards the stairwell, the chain is still very much in place.

I don’t want to go back to the bar.

I think I might sit in the courtyard for a while, but there’s someone here. A woman.

“Is there a show on now?” she asks.

I hold up my hands. “Sorry, I don’t work here.”

The young man with the glasses does though, and he’s appeared just in time.

“Was there a show here earlier?” she asks him. “My son said he was here but I can’t find him…”

Leaving this anxious woman in the young man’s no doubt very capable hands, I go down the stairs. But there’s someone coming up the other way. And she doesn’t appear to have lost a child.

She stops. “Are you here for the theatre?” she asks me.

“Yeah,” I tell her, hanging back on the landing.

She sighs deeply. I feel she’s been holding that breath for a long time. “I’ve been everywhere!” she says. “All around.” She circles her arm to indicate the scope of her travels.

“It’s a confusing place,” I say.

“I went in the other building.”

I don’t know what other building she means, but I nod sympathetically all the same.

She passes me, just as hipster glasses pulls aside the chain. The box office, it seems, it now open.

My new friend doubles back. “We can go up!” she tells me.

I follow her, and the pair of us trudge our way up the stairs.

And more stairs.

And more stairs.

She points. “Even more stairs!” she laughs.

There are a lot of stairs.

We turn one final corner, and there it is. The CLF Theatre. I know because there’s a sign, inscribed in white against a very red wall. The same colour as my face right now.

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Positioned outside, there’s a small desk. And the person who must be our box officer for the evening is sat behind it.

My friend goes first, but when she has trouble looking up the confirmation email for her booking, she waves me forward.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say.

“No, I see you!” says the box officer, finding me at the end of a very short list. “Have you got the reference?” she asks.

Gosh. That’s a first.

I pull out my phone and bring up the email. I find the reference. That’s a lot of numbers and letters. “Um, it’s very long,” I say, turning around my phone so she can see the screen.

“That’s perfect,” she tells me. “I just wanted to confirm the booking.”

Okay. Bit intense. I mean, we’re not exactly at Hamilton right now. Usually box offices just ask for a first name. Or the postcode if they’re really swanky. But okay.

My new friend steps forward. She’s found her email. And she gets a bright yellow wristband for her troubles.

Huh. I didn’t get a wristband. I want a wristband!

“Feel free to head in when you’re ready,” says the box officer.

Neither of us move. I don’t know about you, but sitting in an empty venue, by myself, really creeps me out. It’s even worse than being in a bar by yourself. The bar staff can at least whisper to each other. In a theatre, a small theatre especially, it’s just you and the tech person. And neither of you are supposed to talk to the other.

Two more people arrive. One of them is carrying a guitar case.

“Can I have a wristband?” he asks, after purchasing his ticket.

“These are for people booking the double bill,” the box officer explains.

Fine. That explains it. I don’t want a wristband then.

The boy with the guitar is interested though. “How much is the double bill?”

The box officer grabs a flyer to check. “Fifteen pounds,” she tells him.

He thinks about this. “if I were to decide I want to stay after the show, could I just pay the extra five pounds?”

The box officer smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll remember you.”

Not surprising, as the boy with the guitar turns out to be the chattiest person in the world, and I soon find out that he knows someone in the show, is a student, likes the box officer’s earrings, and that the box officer is not actually a box officer. She runs the theatre in Edinburgh that this show is touring to.

Well.

“You can go in by the way,” says the box officer who isn’t actually a box officer.

None of us move.

“No one wants to be the first,” I say.

The boy picks up the guitar. “I’ll go,” he announces and leads his friend through the door.

I shrug. “Alright then, I’m going in,” I say. And the four of us head into the theatre.

It’s dark in here. Darker than the bar even. Mainly because there’s a light rigged over the stage to glare into the eyes of the audience. But as I adjust to the dimness, I begin to make things out. Rows of chairs facing a floor level staff.

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A wooden floor.

Right in the middle, there’s a pillar, with more dotted around, propping up the ceiling.

It’s like having a theatre set up in your neighbour’s attic.

We take our seats, all avoiding the front row. Not that it’ll make much difference. Not when there are only four of us.

My friend leans over the aisle to me. “What time does it start?” she asks. “I thought it was 7.30pm”

“Yeah, I think they’re waiting for people to turn up.”

“Like the performers, or…” she turns around to look at the non-existent audience. “or us?”

Good question. I'd meant the audience, but who knows. Perhaps the cast had done a runner.

The doors close, and the box officer (who isn’t a box officer) slips in, taking a seat at the back.

The young man with the hipster glasses reappears. He’s introducing the show. “Welcome, to all…” his eyes scan the empty seats. “Five of you.”

Oh dear.

But the play starts and the performers go on undaunted, apart from their alarming tendency to catch eyes. Not helped by the whole thing being performed from behind a set of lecturns. I swear I spend a whole five minutes locked in a staring contest with one if them.

And they’re all so young. That combined with the all black costumes. and the music stand style lecturns, and I feel like i’ve stumbled into the rehearsal for a school choir. Except they’re busy talking about secret broadcasts, lizard people, and aliens.

Not sure I have any idea what this play actually is, but it’s interesting enough, even if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Although their leaving out of the Facebook plot to storm Area 51 in their run down of conspiracy theories doesn’t make it all feel a bit… out of touch.

Whatever. I clap enthusiastically enough when they’re done. You’ve got to admire their gumption if nothing else.

I reach down and grab my bag.

“Are you staying for the next show?” my new friend asks from across the aisle.

“No, one play is enough for me in one night...” Turns out even I have my limits.

She nods and turns away. Somehow I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.