Peck 'em

Between you and me, I’m feeling rather pleased with myself right now.

I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be somewhere else entirely. I was supposed to be at a brand new theatre, on opening night. But turns out booking opening nights at brand new theatres are risky things to book for, and now I have the evening free.

Now, usually this would be a cause of panic. I’d be scrolling through TodayTix, my thumb a blur as I try to find a West End theatre that I both haven’t been to, and can afford to buy a last minute ticket to. With just over five months to go before the final countdown, I can’t afford to take Saturday nights off. No way. Ain’t no time left for that nonsense. I’m going to the theatre, dammit.

But I vaguely remembered getting annoyed at the theatre not do long ago. Annoyed because for the third time, they’d put up a marathon-worthy show on their website, with so little notice I’d already booked myself in for that evening.

I checked back.

Yup. There is was. On for one night only. A play. And there were still tickets available.

Hello, Theatre Peckham! Despite all your best efforts, not programming anything of any use, and then dumping things online with next to no advance notice, I’m going to get you checked off my list.

My feelings of smugness last exactly as long as it takes me to stick in their postcode into the TFL Journey Planner.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Peckham might as well be in the Lake District for all the transport links it has. Looks like I’ll be walking half-way across London to get to this one.

But being the brave, intrepid, explorer that I am, I set off. Battling against cancelled Thameslink trains and walking for miles and miles to fall down at their door.

Turns out, the Theatre Peckham’s laissez-faire attitude to getting shows on sale doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to pull in an audience. This place is packed. There’s a small courtyard outside of the main door, and it’s filled with happy-looking people having drinks and enjoying the sun. Inside, it’s even busier. The queue for the bar stretches out from one side of the foyer to the other, echoing the line of bunting strung up overhead.

I inch my way around the walls, trying to find somewhere where I’m not in everyone’s way. It’s tricky. There are people waiting at the box office. People waiting for the loos. People waiting beside the entrance to the theatre. People waiting for friends and drinks and the doors to open.

This place has clearly set itself out to be a community hub and it's doing it well. There’s a piano on one side, a dress up corner on the other, and even a casting opportunity notice board. No wonder they can fill a theatre with only a few days' notice.

I find a small space near a pillar and tuck myself in.

At least I don’t have to get involved with any of that. I have an e-ticket. It says right here in the confirmation email “use your smartphone to display the .pdf ticket on-screen so that the person on the door can examine and check its authenticity.” Not sure how they go about that, but I’m hoping there’s a beeper. I hate e-tickets, but I love a ticket beeper.

It’s warm in here. It’s a bit Hardwicke Hall (“more window than wall”) and the sun is blazing through the glass, heating us up like a bunch of rapidly ripening tomatoes.

Someone standing near me leans back against the pillar and fans herself.

I stare at her. That fan looks surprisingly like an admission pass.

I should have known better. Ticket confirmations are nonsense emails. You should never trust a word they say. There’s not going to be a ticket beeper. And no one is going to check the authenticity. They might have fancy pdfs to send out, but that doesn’t stop them from handing out laminated scraps of logoed up paper like all the rest of the old school venues.

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I join the queue for the box office.

“The surname is Smiles,” I tell the lady behind the counter when I finally get to the front of the queue.

“Sorry?”

“Smiles?” I say, wondering if I had been mistaken after all, and the admission token had been nothing more than a trick of the dazzeling light. But no, there they are. I can see them. Piled up neatly next to her mouse. I press on. “S. M. I. L. E. S. Smiles? That’s the surname?”

She looks it up. “Just one?” she asks.

“… yes.”

She hands me a token. It’s white, laminated, with the Theatre Peckham logo, and is in no way an e-ticket.

Thank goodness.

I return to my little corner near the pillar, and soon find myself part of the queue to get in without the bother of moving.

A young man in a Theatre Peckham branded top makes his way down to queue, talking to everyone in turn.

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“Sorry?” I ask when he gets to me. I shade me eyes against the sun still forcing its way through those massive windows.

“You don’t mind being filmed?” he repeats.

“Oh…” Do I mind being filmed?I mean… the answer is: yes. I do. But I’m not sure I mind enough to cause a fuss. “No,” I tell him.

He moves on, asking his question all the way down to the end of the queue.

I’m not sure how I feel about this direct approach. On the one hand it’s great that he’s making sure everyone going through the door knows that there’s going to be a camera in there, but on the other, it does rather put you on the spot more than a sign ever would.

I make a mental note to pick a seat at the back.

I check my phone.

It’s 7.35pm. The doors still aren’t open.

Oh well. At least it’s a short play.

Or is it? I can’t remember. But it surely must be. In this run up to Edinburgh, everything seems to be coming in at under an hour.

I go to the Theatre Peckham website and look for the show we’re queueing for, Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and scroll down.

2 hours plus interval.

2 hours plus interval. What does that mean? How long is an interval? It doesn’t say. It could be five minutes or thirty or anything in between.

It’s 7.38pm and we still haven’t gone in.

Two hours

Plus an interval of unknown length.

And then the long trek back to Finchley.

I’m not getting home before midnight, am I?

The usher is back. He slips through the queue to reach a lady a few places ahead of me. “Don’t forget to sit at the top, yeah?” he says. “The back of the back of the tip of the top.”

She frowns at him. “Why?”

“Because you don’t want to be filmed, yeah?”

Her face clears and she nods. Back of the back of the tip of the top. She’s got it.

7.43pm. The doors have opened. We’re going in.

Gosh. It’s quite nice in here. A balcony circling three sides. A floor level stage.

There’s multi-coloured upholstery across the seating, which I notice are those flip-down benches which require you to coordinate the sitting down process with your neighbour.

I can see what the usher meant by the back of the back and the tip of the top.

There are a few rows right at the back that are cordoned off by a railing. I suppose they’re supposed to be considered part of the balcony, but really they look like an extension of the stalls with a wall to keep back the riffraff.

I can see the camera. It’s just there, in front of the first row.

Hopefully it won’t see me back here.

Its presence doesn’t seem to have put many people off though. The front row fills up fast. As do the second and third row.

As the seats gradually fill up, spaces gradually disappearing as newcomers are forced to go further back, I can see why. The rake… isn’t great. It’s disappointingly bad. Especially for such a new theatre. I always wonder about this. Do theatres not test the rake before opening to the public? Do they not consider that someone sitting in their seats might actually like to see what is happening on stage? It always makes me think they are just gambling on them never selling enough tickets for it to matter. And in the event of them having a hit show, for the audience to be so desperate to see it, they won’t care if their view is a little obstructed by the person in front.

It’s nearly ten to eight now. And we still haven’t started.

I suppose that says it all. Bollocks to the audience. There’ll be a show. At some point. And they’ll get to see it. Most of it, anyway. Whatever.

Oh well.

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We’re starting now. At last.

Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.

All time travel and the voice of god and returning to the scene of the crime and prophets and machetes and rhyme.

A bit poetic. A bit dance theatre. A bit strange.

A bit… dull.

I mean, it’s fine. Well written. Well performed. All that.

But it isn’t doing the business for me.

Too many characters. Too much stuff going on. Too long. Too drawn out.

I’m sure the twin timelines will come together at some point, but right now… eh.

But you know, this play wasn’t created for the likes of me. And the rest of the audience seem to be loving it. Laughing at what I presume are the right bits.

The air conditioning is good though. A bit too good. It’s freezing. But I’m not complaining. Better too cold than too warm. I’m just waiting to wriggle back into my jacket as soon as the interval hits.

Just as I’m rubbing my arms to get some warmth back into them, the stage light extinguishes, plunging into darkness. The man sitting next to me lifts his hands, ready to clap. But he holds back. Is it the interval?

The darkness extends a fraction too long.

The house lights should be coming up by now.

But they don’t.

Someone at the front risks a clap, and we all follow their lead.

The house lights go up. As one, the audience gets to their feet and disappears to the bar. I reach under my seat and grab my jacket, snuggling down into its woollen warmth.

As everyone begins to filter back, they come laden with drinks and snacks. One person appears to have popped out to the shops, and his hands are full of crisps. Around five packets if I’ve counted correctly. Not quite the Dairylea Dunker of snack masters that I saw at the Stockwell Playhouse, but he’s certainly up there.

He opens up the first pack, and starts munching, tipping out the last of the crumbs just as the house lights descend for the second half.

I pull my jacket tight around me and shiver through the rest of the play, trying to enjoy the frigid chill of the auditorium, and being annoyed with myself for not appreciating the cold as much as I should.

At the end, there's a standing ovation. A little one. And not undeserved. Those actors put in the work. Jumping between characters with little more than the unzipping of a jacket and putting on of a hat.

Oh well. Time to start the long walk to Oval. There's no way I'm risking the Thameslink again.

In the foyer, I turn around to have another look. Taking in the piano, the bunting, the reading nook with it’s chair and accompanying bookshelf.

I doubt I'll be back. Not until Peckham gets a tube station anyway.

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The Old Curiosity Theatre

It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.

The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.

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As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.

"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.

"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.

"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."

I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.

"Just the one ticket was it?"

"Yup. All by myself."

Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.

A queue is forming on the stairs.

Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."

As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.

Space is tight at the Pentameters.

Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.

"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.

"You've been here before?"

I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.

"You're not a student are you?"

"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.

"Are you an actress or...?"

She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.

I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."

"Oh! What do you do?"

"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."

"We do all that ourselves here."

As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.

She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.

Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.

"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.

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"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.

Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.

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Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.

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The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.

Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.

It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.

A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.

He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.

"Can I get a programme," I ask him?

"Yup, they're a pound."

I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.

"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.

But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.

"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.

The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.

Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.

It's not worth a pound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.

But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.

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The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.

The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.

"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.

"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."

And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.

Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.

The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.

She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"

We all give it. Enthusiastically.

"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.

I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.

The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.

"Night," I say on my way out.

"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"

I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.

Sweat-proof and transfer-resistant

More bag checks. It’s weird to think there was a time when this didn’t feel normal. That you could walk into a West End theatre without revealing on the embarrassing items that you tote around with you.

The bag checker on duty at the Gielgud clicks her little torch and peers inside the black depths of my rucksack. All good. The torch clicks off. “Mind the step and ticket collection is on the left,” she says all in one breath.

Right then. Better go left.

There’s a neat desk set into the wall over here. Which would seem like the perfect location for a box office. But the people at Gielgud Towers (or should I say Mackintosh House, home to Delfont Mackintosh, which is right next door) wouldn’t agree. Oh no. They have their ticket collection point on a small concession desk. The type where you’d expect to buy a programme, and maybe a bag of Minstrels.

But there's no bag of Minstrels here. Just tickets.

I join the queue and look around.

The Gielgud is a bit fancy, isn’t it? I mean, you kinda expect that from a theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, but this one really is glowing.

There’s an oval-shaped mezzanine above the foyer, and people are up there, leaning on the balustrade to gaze down on all the newcomers, like sneaky angels perching on the edge of an oculus.

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Small spotlights are placed strategically to make the gilded walls glow and shimmer. It’s all rather spectacular.

It is entirely the wrong place to watch SWEAT.

This tale of the American factory workers is much better suited to its original home at the Donmar Warehouse. I saw it there last year. One of the last productions I went to before going into marathon-mode. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Perhaps it was just suffering from being overhyped, but I thought it was just a whole pile of words, and I wasn’t that into it. I mean, it was fine. It’s not like I thought it was bad. Watchable, you know? But the Pulitzer prize win baffled me.

So, yeah. When the West End transfer was announced, I wasn’t all that enthused about going again. But I couldn’t get my act together early enough to book into Company, and I really didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of the Les Mis holding cell. So here we are. At SWEAT.

But I’m not mad at it. The theatre is nice. The seats are comfy. I can just lean back and maybe have a little nap.

I reach the front of the queue, give my name, and get my ticket. No fuss.

Right, where am I sitting?

Row A. Stalls.

Okay then. No napping for me. Martha Plimpton might notice. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s offend Martha Plimpton. She scares me.

When Martha Plimpton asked me to get out of the way at Shakespeare in the Abbey, I got the fuck out of the way.

I better go in before she tells the ushers to keep an eye on me.

Hmm. Not sure where I’m going.

There’s a door to the stalls over here, just up these steps. But then there’s another one across the other way. Neither of them have numbers on them, and my ticket doesn’t have a left or a right on it.

I pick a door at random. Which basically means I select the one closest to me.

The ticket checker leans around his doorway and hands a single ticket stub to the front of houser standing guard at the staircase leading up to the circle.

“Here you go,” he says with a big grin.

That’s… odd. But perhaps she collects ticket stubs. If so, she’s sure in the right job.

He glances at my ticket and let’s me through. So, I guess my guess was guessed right.

Down some stairs with some frankly exhaustingly patterned carpet, and an equally enthused wallpaper. I slow down so that I can admire the posters. They’re properly old ones. From back when a typesetter was king. All text. No images.

Probably for the best, given that wallpaper.

Lots of John Gielgud shows, which I suppose makes sense.

There’s only so much lingering in stairwells you can do with only text-based posters to look at, and I make my way to the bottom and into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. Which reminds me. I have the programme from the Donmar run, because of course I do. I wonder what they’ve done differently.

I buy one. It’s £4. Which is an alright price. Almost a bargain.

Let’s see what’s in it.

I find my seat, in the front row, stuff my bag and jacket under the seat and settle in for a good peruse of the programme. There’s an article by Stephen Bush. That was in the Donmar programme. “Class hatred is Britain’s original sin.” Nice. What else? Another article! That’s what. It’s not often you get double articleage in the West End, I can tell you that for sure. This one’s by Jocelyn L. Buckner. “Blood, sweat and tears.” About how Lynn Nottage empowered the residents of Reading with their own story. That… that sounds familiar. I check the photo I snapped this morning. “Labor Negotiations: The Power of Community Forged Through Sweat.” By Jocelyn L. Buckner. Same article. But with a souped up West End title.

There's also a short piece about Les Mis, which we definitely didn't get at the Donmar. But it's all facts and figures and numbers and dates, and my god it's boring. I mean, come on, this is just glorified marketing copy. No one wants to read that. And I say that as someone who writes marketing copy for a living.

There seems to be rather a lot of that here. Marketing under the guise of editorial. There's a whole thing about Mary Poppins just a few pages further in. This is the kind of stuff I put in brochures. Not programmes. Oh well, I suppose we can just chalk 'em up as ads and move on.

“I haven’t got a programme,” says my neighbour. “Will you be offended if I don’t spend money on a programme?”

Well, actually I would rather… Oh, he isn’t talking to me.

Ah.

I mean, perhaps he got himself one during the Donmar run. That might explain it. You’d have to be pretty darn obsessed with programmes to buy the exact same content, just in a different format, with added advertising...

“It’s stunning!” says his companion.

I look critically at the programme. It’s alright, I guess. Not quite the slick sophistication of the white and red Donmar programmes, but it’s got a nice image on the front.

She stands up to look around the auditorium.

My neighbour twists around in his seat. “Yes,” he agrees. “A real Edwardian gem.”

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Honestly, it’s like these people aren’t even interested in programmes.

“The set is very evocative and very realistic. I don't think it's for doing things with, a la our national theatre,” continues my neighbour. “I suppose the men from the factory could come down from the pulleys but I don't think it’s the kind of play.”

He’s right. It’s not that kind of play. No swinging from the chandelier here. Although I’d have a great view of it if any of the cast fancy getting a bit acrobatic.

Someone in theatre blacks comes along to adjust all the small microphones set on the front of the stage. We all shuffle out knees around so that he can get through, but really, there’s plenty of room. I can stretch my legs right out and my toes don’t even touch the stage. Benefits of front rowing, I suppose. I should really do this more often.

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The house lights dim and Martha Plimpton’s lovely voice comes over the sound system, telling us to switch off our phones. I’ve already put my phone away, but I get it out to double check that, yes, my phone is on airplane mode, and yes, it’s on silent too. Ain’t no buzzing going to interrupt Martha Plimpton’s flow. Not today.

Except, it’s not Martha Plimpton who comes out on stage.

It’s a man with tattoos. On his face. Nazi tattoos. On his face.

A man sitting really fucking close to me. With Nazi tattoos. On his face.

Shit. I’d forgotten about this.

I’m surprised about how uncomfortable it is. To be sitting so close to a man with Nazi tattoos. On his face. I know it’s not real. I know it’s just makeup. But I can’t help but think about the poor actor having to apply all that every day. And the momentary panic he must have every time they don’t wash off quite as quickly as they should.

But it’s only a framing device.

Soon enough, dust sheets are being pulled away, bits of set lowered from the rafters, and we're in a bar, and there's Martha Plimpton, dancing away. I think she might be a bit drunk.

At the Donmar, I was stuck right at the back of the circle. Watching the play from above. Here, well, I have quite the opposite angle. I can see right under the tables. I can even count all the bits of chewing gum stuck underneath.

And oh my lord, what a difference sitting close makes. I'm not going to start claiming that I believe in the second coming of SWEAT. But you know, it's good. I'm enjoying it.

And when Sebastián Capitán Viveros's Oscar flips over each of the tables in turn, and chisels off the chewing gum, I get a certain satisfaction seeing them turned back again, all clean and gum-free. Almost as if I'd hacked away at the white globs myself.

And when the fight scene comes, well, I find myself leaning as far back as I can, convinced that someone's going to come flying off the stage, legs and arms flailing, and quite possibly knock my nose off on their way down.

It doesn't help that it's a pretty fucking intense fight scene.

The audience audibly winces as Oscar takes a wallop to the stomach. A soft hiss of air escaping from between the audience members' teeth as he goes down.

Oof. That reqlly doesn't look good, mate.

Play over, I feel like I've been released. And not just because it was over two and a half hours.

I was pinned down for far too long. Pushed back into my chair with that heady stream of words.

I can see why people like sitting in the front row. But it's a bit too much for me. Too real. Too present. Too vulnerable-making.

And, let's be real. If a play is so intimate that it requires sitting in the front row in order to really feel it? Eh... I mean, perhaps a traditional theatre isn't the right place for it.

Anyway, another theatre checked off the list. Gielgud is done. And at least I don't have to debate with myself whether the staged theatrical concert version of Les Mis that's coming in next counts as theatre or not.

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Who watches the watchmen?

Another 7pm start again. But this time, I’m feeling rather more positive about it. Mainly because my theatre for tonight is only down the road, which means that I get to stay at work for an extra half-hour. Oh. okay. Maybe I’m not on team 7 o’clock-start quite yet. Mad rush across London or staying late in the office isn’t that great a choice.

But I can’t blame the King’s Head for that. If anything I should be grateful that I only have to stroll down Upper Street to get to them. Won’t be able to do that much longer. They’re moving next year. That’s a lie. Not the bit about them moving, they’re doing that. The bit about me not being able to stroll there after work. They’re only going down the road. God, I rambling, aren’t I? Sorry. I’m so fucking tired right now. This weather… I’m really not doing well at the moment. Can’t sleep. Can’t think. Can’t breathe. And my poor hair… let’s not talk about my hair. It’s too distressing.

And the whole this is made worse by everyone else loving it so much. Soaking up the sun like lizards on rocks.

Look at them, sitting out there outside the pub, with their faces tipped up to the sun, and their drinks, and their smiles, and their happiness. Ergh. I hate them.

I better go inside. Where it’s dark and cool.

It’s been a while since my last visit here, so I’m very pleased to see the massive KING’S HEAD THEATRE sign up on the back wall, leading the way to the box office.

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It’s a funny old set up they have here. Not for them the laptop propped on the end of the bar, oh no.

Instead they build a kind of barricade between the theatre and the pub, and on top of this, they set up shop with money box and printed lists. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a pub theatre, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond these walls.

I give my name to one of the box officers on the barricade and get my name checked off the list.

He grabs a tiny scrap of paper and scrawls my seat number on it with biro.

“Let’s do you a nice bespoke, DIY ticket,” he says before handing it over.

“Well, that’s completely unforgable,” says some wag in the queue next to me.

Ah, bants. You gotta love it.

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I’m shocked. Not about the hand-made nature of the ticket. That’s very King’s Head, after all. No, it’s more the fact that I have a seat number at all that is surprising me. Now that I think about it, I vaguely remember selecting a seat while booking, but still… I think that’s a first on this marathon. A pub theatre that actually assigns seats.

“The doors will open soon,” he says, then looks behind him as the doors to the theatre start shifting from the inside. “Oh, they’re opening now!”

I’m not sure I want to be first through the door. That’s a level of keenness that I don’t want to be showing off. Not at the King’s Head.

I step back and tuck myself against a shelf and watch as other theatre-goers pick up their tickets.

“There we go,” says the box officer to the next person in line. “A nice bespoke, DIY ticket for you.”

Ah. If a line’s that good, it deserves repeating.

Time to go in.

The usher on the door takes the scrap of paper from me. “C11? That’s third row, either this side or the other, you’ll need to check. They keep on switching them over.”

I don’t get the scrap of paper back.

I’m on my own.

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C11. C11. C11. C11. C11.

I repeat it again and again so I don’t forget. In my head, of course. Just to be clear. I’m not that weird.

I head for the furthest aisle and start checking the seat numbers. They’re written on tiny little plaques screwed to the backrest of the benches. And I saw written, because that’s what they are. Not printed. They look like they’ve been scratched out and rewritten a hundred times over.

You got to love it, don’t you?

I hope they bring these battered badges with them to the new venue. I can’t wait to hear what the swanks in Islington Square head office have to say when they hear about it.

C11, as it turns out, is in the last block of seats. In the third row.

That was pretty easy to find. After all, I can count all the way to a hundred. And I know my alphabet. Sort of. (I get a big confused around the Qs and Ss, but I can run through it pretty snappy if I remember what the tune is).

I don’t mean to sound smug. But the other audience members seem to be having a bit of a problem.

“Do you know what row you’re in?” a lady asks me.

“Yes, row C. It’s written here,” I say tapping the badge on the back of my seat.

“Oh.” She doesn’t sound convinced. She looks about her, turns, and then leaves.

Perhaps I should have offered to sing her the Alphabet song.

The ticket checker rushes over to the front row. “Sorry Sir,” she says, waving at a man squeezing himself into the front row. “You’re over here.” She points to a spot over in my block. In the second row.

“Ah! I thought you meant over here,” he says, the invisible light bulb above his head lighting up, and he makes his way over to the correct seat.

The lady who asked me about my row is back, still looking lost.

The usher tries to help. Pointing her to the seats just behind me.

“Is that row C?” she asks.

“D,” says the usher. “You’re just in here.”

“Where?”

The usher points again. “Just here. The three seats right at the end.”

“But we’re not all together.”

“No, one of you is in row C.”

“C?”

“Yes, this row,” she says, pointing at the row I’m sitting in.

“That’s D?”

“No. C.”

“C?”

“Yes.”

“And one of us separate?”

“Yes, in row C.”

“D?”

“Three of you are in row D.”

And on and on it goes. I’m beginning to think I really will have to sing the Alphabet Song to her if this continues.

“This,” says the lady, pointing up at the ceiling. “Is intolerable.”

She’s quite right. It really is.

“Sorry,” says the usher. “They’re turning it down.”

Oh. She meant the music. Huh. I was rather enjoying it.

My neighbour twists around on our bench to look at me.

“How long is this?” he asks.

People faffing around finding their seats? A fucking eternity. Oh, he means the play.

“70 minutes,” I tell him.

“70 minutes?” he nods and turns back to face the stage, apparently satisfied with that answer.

Eventually, with a lot more usher assistance, everyone manages to find their seats. You have to admire the King’s Head for their dedication to the cause of allocated seating. Lesser venues would have through it over in favour of the free-for-all years ago.

As we all settle down, the guy from the box office comes in, brandishing a bucket and with a tote bag slung over his shoulder. I think we all know what that means. It’s the upsell.

“Welcome to the King’s Head Theatre,” he starts before introducing himself. Should I mention a front of houser’s name? Is that appropriate? I don’t usually. But I guess, he gave his name willingly, so… it’s Alex.

He has a prepared speech. The King’s Head isn’t subsidised. They need to raise a hundred grand a year. The pub and the theatre are separate. The theatre gets none of that revenue. “If you ordered a double at the bar tonight, you’re not helping us,” he says, as if that was ever the point of ordering a double.

But never fear, theatre audiences, Alex has a plan.

“When people ask where you were on Thursday night, you can tell them you were at the King’s Head Theatre,” he says, straightening out the tote bag so that we can all see the design. “It’s fairtrade. It’s organic. It’s only five pounds.

“But what do you put inside the tote bag? Well, how about a Brexit playtext?” he says, pulling a handsomely covered book from the bucket. “Only five pounds and available from the box office after the show. Or,” he says, pulling something else out of the tin bucket. “A DVD documentary about the King’s Head Theatre.” That’s only three pounds he tells us, which sounds like a right old bargain to me until I remember I haven’t owned any kind of tech capable of playing a DVD in around seven years. “Or,” he goes on. “I have this bucket. It’s a tradition at the King’s Head. If you have any spare change, unfold it and drop it in.”

That gets a laugh. Hopefully it also gets them some fivers.

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That done. It’s on with the play.

Brexit.

I can well and truly say that I’ve had my fill of the subject. But, well, I thought it would be appropriate. Pin this marathon into the calendar like a still wriggling butterfly into a frame.

And it’s funny. It really is. With lots of backroom dealings and double-crossings and clever wordplay and references to ‘Matron’ the former prime minister.

Set in the near future, where everything is exactly the same but even more so. Endless rounds of talk, with no one capable of making a decision. The withholding of closure on an entire continent.

As the applause fades, I reach under my seat to grab my bag.

“You seemed rather detached from that?” says my neighbour as I re-emerge.

Did I? “I’m just very tired,” I say, which seems to be my answer for every bit of criticism I’m receiving at the moment. No matter what it is. Missed a deadline? Tired. Finished of the last of the biscuits? Tired. Forgot to pay the gas bill? Again? So. Fucking. Tired. I mean, it's not like we even need gas. Not in this weather.

“I did enjoy it though,” I clarify, just in case he thinks I’m dissing the play. I’m not. I really did enjoy it.

He sits back surprised. “You’re American?”

“Err… no?” I say, equally surprised. I’m really not American, and couldn’t even do the accent if I tried.

He doesn't say anything to that. I'm not sure whether he's pleased with my lack of Americanness or not.

I get up to leave, but his comment is still playing on my mind, even when I'm halfway down Upper Street.

Detached? How would he even know? Perhaps I wasn't laughing enough. That could be it. But I'd say the general reaction to Brexit (the play) is more of a giggle than a guffaw. So that can't be it. Surely. I must have been acting very strangely for him to feel the need to point it out. Have I started talking to myself? Oh god, I've started talking to myself, haven't I? I'm doing it right now, aren't I? Shit. Don't answer that. Talking to yourself is one thing. Getting an answer is quite another.

Whatever I was doing, I can't help but think that this is punishment for my blog. After passing judgement on the audiences of over 160 theatres, they've now finally turned on me.

You know what…? I think I just got reviewed.

And I did not get five stars.

Know your Onions

It’s the Park Theatre today!

I am very excited. Can you tell?

Not that I give a crap about the Park Theatre you understand. I mean, I’m sure it’s just swell. I’ve never been, so I can’t comment.

No, what I’m excited about is the theatre’s Getting Here page on their website.

A strangely specific thing to get worked up about, you may think. And I’ll grant you there is some truth in that. It is both strange, and specific. But I have my reasons. And those reasons are dog related.

After providing (very good and detailed) instructions on how to get to the theatre from the tube station, they go on to provide a video of the route. Featuring a dog. Called Hazel. It is super cute, and Hazel is adorable. And whoever came up with this idea is an excellent person and I approve of the entire endeavour.

My only criticism, and I’m not sure they are even taking notes at this stage, is that they say the walk takes four minutes, and yet the video is all of thirty seconds. If I had a touch more time on my hands, I’d be campaigning for real-time Hazel walkies. But as it is, I’m a bit busy. So off to the Park I go. Taking the suggested route, from the tube station. It takes about four minutes.

When I get there, the big glass windows at the front of the building are all open, and people are making full use of the the evening sun, sitting outside and doing the mostest to bring some European cafe culture to Finsbury Park.

There’s no sign of Hazel, but I’m sure she’s inside lolling around on a cool floor somewhere.

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I go in, have a quick look around for any potential dog action, and with no wagging tails in sight, head over to the box office.

I give my surname, and the box officer pulls the ticket out of the box and hands it to me.

I look at it and start laughing.

“Mr Today Tix?” I ask. “I like that.”

You see, when you buy tickets through the TodayTix app, as I did for this trip, theatres usually process the company as the buyer, and then handwrite the audience member’s name on each one in time for collection. I think almost all theatres that use the app do this. With the Southbank Centre as the notable exception. They actually went and keyed in my information so that the ticket printed with my actual name on it. But the Southbank Centre are some swish bastards. They’ve got the resources for that kind of service.

Saying that, I don’t think I’ve come across a theatre to offer the app a title so far.

It's nice.

There’s a small display of programmes on the counter. Three quid. Not bad.

“Can I get a programme?”

I can, and we go about the business of my handing over cash and him sorting out my change.

Now what?

There doesn’t seem to be much seating here. And it’s too early to go in.

I wander outside and find a bollard to lean against, and start sorting out all my stuff.

I make to slip the ticket in my pocket, but give it one final look.

Mr Today Tix.

How silly.

Out of interest, I get out my phone, go to the Park’s website, and try to set up an account. They’re running the standard Spektrix system to handle their bookings, and the Title field is freetext. Not a dropdown. Meaning that whoever set up TodayTix as Mr Today Tix has some thoughts on the matter of titling inanimate software.

I’m not sure how appropriate it is to be gendering apps, but still… I got a giggle out of it.

Right, ticket analysed, it’s time to turn my attention to the…

Shit.

I trot back to box office.

“Sorry! I didn’t actually take a programme,” I say, feeling like a right idiot. I’m really getting old. I can’t deal with late nights and alcohol. Despite all the shenanigans last night, I woke up feeling quite fresh this morning. Tired, yes. But not furry of tongue and sticky of eye. I was fine. It was only when the headache hit after lunch that I realised that the reason I didn’t wake up with a hangover, is because I woke up still drunk.

Honestly, once this marathon is over, I’m fully committing to a 10pm bedtime.

“Oh, did you not?” says the box officer, having the grace to sound surprised.

I take one and go back outside.

It’s a nice little programme. There are interviews and things. I’d pay three quid for it. I mean, I did actually pay three quid for it. But even outside the confines of the marathon, and research, and whatever else I’m using to justify my programme buying habit, I would pay three quid for it. It’s worth the coin.

From inside there’s an announcement. The house for Napoli, Brooklyn is now open.

I suddenly realise that I've come across has a comma in the title.

That's unusual. We had Life, Apparently at Hoxton Hall. And I'd made a big fuss about the comma then.

I hope this isn't becoming a trend. Punctuation confuses me.

People start to make their way back inside. But slowly. No one wants to give up the sun quite yet.

I wait a few minutes. I’ve still got time.

But then I remember I hate being in the sun, so I follow everyone back in.

Back across the foyer, past the box office and bar, down a short flight of steps and then…

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Getting out my ticket again because there are two different doors and I need to check my seat number to find out which one I need.

Funny. There’s no one out here. Both doors are free of ticket checkers.

I’m on my own.

Which is fine.

I know what I’m doing. I know my seat number and can work out which door I need like the big girl I am, but still. There’s usually someone directing traffic at these junctions.

For a brief moment I wonder if time has slipped away from me, that I stepped into a faerie ring on my way in, and without knowing, took hours to get to the other side. Perhaps the show has already started, and that’s why there’s no one out here.

I go through the nearest door, into a small antechamber, and emerge on the other side at the back of the stalls.

And there’s a ticket checker waiting.

Oh. Right.

That’s okay then.

“C43?” I ask as she comes over to me. The door I took had said seat numbers up to 43, so that must mean… “Am I on the end here?” I say, pointing towards the furthest seat on the back row, right down by the back corner of the thrust stage.

“Err. Yes,” she agrees and off I go.

The view… isn’t great.

Okay, it’s not bad. I’m sure I won’t miss anything of importance. But there seems to be a kitchen in my sightline.

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Well, I suppose that’s what you get if you shudder at the thought of paying more than fifteen pounds for anything.

Looks like quite a few people were shuddering. The theatre has been filling up, but the side rows are still on the sparse side and it looks like the balcony has been closed off.

As for my ticket, what fifteen pounds gets you is a spot on a bench right next to the wall. Wait, is it a wall. It seems to be moving… Just as I begin to wonder whether I’m hallucinating, or possibly still drunk from last night, the wall that isn’t a wall moves again. Like a curtain with the window open behind it. And then I hear voices. People are talking on the other side.

A second later, the house lights are down and an actor is emerging from behind the wall and placing a halved onion under each of her eyes in turn, trying to make herself cry.

My row is still half empty. While Madeleine Worrall’s matriarch Luda tries to get her cry on, I slide down the bench to get a better view.

The onions can’t get the job done. She must be all cried out. I would be too, if I had a daughter sent to a convent, with a broken nose after facing the wrath of my husband. Or a second daughter who refuses to eat. Or a third who had to be pulled out of school in order to help bring money in, and has cuts all over her hands as the result of hard labour.

That’s a well that even an onion can’t fill.

But oh, they try.

While one onion can barely make a space, a wagon-full may bring up the water level.

By the end of the first act, the stage is covered in the things. Hundreds of them. A few have bounced off the edge, despite the presence of the guard rail, presumably put there to keep the pesky things in.

Audience members in the front row pick them up as they retrieve their bags from under their seats. A few of them send their bulbs ricocheting across the stage like air hockey pucks, and they bounce into the set with a small thud.

But it was all in vain, as stage managers come out to reset for the second act, and they bring the big brooms with them, sliding the onions off into the various corners. Out of the way, but still very much present.

One of them starts to read off a check list of items why another confirms their presence.

“Six forks on the left.”

“Yup.”

“Six knives in the middle.”

“Yup.”

“Six plates with napkins on top.”

“Err. Three, fourfive. Yup.”

“Tea towels?”

“Yes.”

And on they go, detailing out this well stocked dinner service.

As the family settle down to eat, I wonder why I’m not feeling hungry, as I usually do when actors are munching away on stage. They keep on talking about what a great cook Luda is (and she herself agrees with that assessment), but all we’ve seen her do is pick at a few green beans. There’s no onstage cookery going on here. No working hob. No warm and hearty smells swirling around the auditorium.

I could do with something warm and hearty right now.

It’s not warm at all in here.

I put on my jacket and cross my arms, shivering in my seat.

Across the way I see a woman bring out her scarf and wrap it around her shoulders.

It’s freezing in here.

I can’t stop shaking.

Even when I emerge into what’s left of the sunshine, I have to keep on rubbing at my arms until the warmth manages to eke its way under my skin.

As I retrace my steps back to the station, I make a mental note to save my trip to their studio space for when it’s really hot. That air con is top notch after all.

When August hits, I might ask to move in.

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I Got Played

I’ve broken the pattern. I’m not on the Southbank. I’m north of the river, which is rather exciting. It's been a while. I'm in Hammersmith! Usually this would mean a quick stop off at the Crosstown concession in the tube station, but it’s a 7pm start so I better get myself shifted. Thankfully the theatre is just down the road. You can see it from the station, the massive logo peeking around the side of the pub like a friend winking at you in a crowded party.

And it is a friend now, because I’ve already done the main house. But I’m back to tackle the studio. Something that’s been a bit tricky getting myself into as the good people at the Lyric seem to mainly programme kids’ shows in that space. Thankfully I was saved from that fate by the Lyric Ensemble. Some sort of youth group. With new writing. I don’t know. I'm sure I’ll find out soon enough.

There are three box officers behind the counter tonight. They all grin wildly as I step in the door.

“Hello!” calls over the middle one in what must be the friendliest welcome I’ve had in a theatre so far.

The main house is dark at the moment. Noises Off doesn’t open until tomorrow. For now, the studio is ruling the joint. So it’s nice and quiet. And the box office team seem to be enjoying it.

I do the whole business of giving my name and middle bloke digs out my ticket from the box.

“That’s the second floor,” he says. “In the studio.”

I go upstairs, but I have no intention of going to the studio quite yet. The sun is shining, and there’s a terrace I need to become reacquainted with. I mean, you know how much I love a terrace. And the Lyric has gone a pretty mega one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one to have had this idea. There are a lot of people out here. A lot of young people.

A bench near the entrance is covered from one end to the other with stacks of pizza boxes and the general vibe seems to be sitting around cross-legged, holding slices of pizza, and laughing.

Not wanting to be the spectre at the feast, I head over to the wall overlooking Lyric Square and make friends with the pigeons instead.

Some people might consider this a bit of a low point in my life. Communing with pigeons while surrounded by teenagers having a pizza party, but to them I say… you’re probably right, let’s move on.

I do, heading back inside and making my way to the studio, which is conveniently all of ten steps away. I flash my ticket at the door and the ticket checker waves me through.

The studio is bright, with white walls and a wooden floor. No black box nonsense here.

“Just to let you know, there’s no readmission,” says a front of houser.

“Right thanks.”

Another front of houser comes over. “Would you like a free programme?”

I absolutely would. She pulls a freesheet out of the pile in her arms and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to choose where to sit.

It looks like the seating that is usually in here has been folded up and pushed back against the wall. Instead, chairs have been brought in, placed on three sides around a stage that looks like a box of earth. Each side has two rows.

I decide I’m not really feeling the front row today, so I put myself in the second. That seems to be the popular choice. Only one person has dared the front row so far.

“No readmission?” says a newcomer on hearing the party line. “So once we’re out, we’re out?” He laughs as the front of houser confirms that, yes, that is the way things are going tonight.

Slowly, the rest of the audiences filters in. The front of housers chat quietly as we all wait for the rows to fill up. One of them fetches a pile of reserved signs and starts laying them done. On the chairs near the entrance, as standard, but also half way down a row on the left, and the furthest seat in that row. All very strange.

I begin to get worried. Reserved seats in the middle of rows. That sounds like the cast might… sit amongst us. And I’m not liking the look of these pieces of paper slipped beneath the chairs. I’m tempted to get mine out and have a look at it, but I’m not sure I want to know.

“There’s no readmission, so if you need the toilet, you need to go now,” says one of the front of housers to a new group just coming in.

We’re nearly full now.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts reading. “It doesn’t say much about the show,” she says.

I’d just been thinking the same thing. It’s a nice freesheet, don’t get me wrong. Has the title treatment of the show at the top, a blood splattered Mob Reformer, which looks very exciting. There’s a cast list. Creative credits. A note from the director. A nice group photo of the ensemble, and a bit about what that is exactly. And the thanks. Obvs. I spot Conrad Murray’s name in there. That’s cool. I wonder if we’re going to get any beatboxing out of this evening.

A woman in a fabulous satin skirt comes in and takes the reserved seat at the end of the row. She’s holding a notebook and wearing a lanyard, marking for what is quite possibly the shortest round of my Blogger or Director game to date. Director. For sure.

The satin skirt gave it away.

Bloggers can't dress for shit.

The front of housers start directing the stragglers to the few empty seats left going.

“Sorry,” says one usher to the front row. “Can you all move up one, so we have one on the end.” One by one they all shift up to close the gap. “Sorry, do you mind?” she asks the last person to move. They don’t mind, and the end chair on the row is freed up.

But it’s not enough, and soon a front of houser is bringing in a spare seat for the last person standing.

Right. I think we’re done.

The cast certainly think so. Someone comes out, in full medieval garb, and an Amazon box in their arms. “I’m Niamh,” Niamh introduces herself all bright and full of cheer. Her smile only wavers when a newcomer arrives, in jeans. This is Ele. She’s late. Oops.

No matter. There’s a show to be getting on with. Niamh gets out a helmet from her box. It’s made of paper, and very impressive. There’s a grill that covers the lower half of the face, space for the eyes, coverage for the whole, you know, head area. It really is excellent.

And she wants us to make one.

“You’ll find pieces of A3 paper under your chairs,” she says. And with no further guidance, we are left to it.

I get out my piece of paper, and stare at it. It’s exactly what she says it was, a blank piece of A3, and nothing more.

“Remember the eye-holes,” she says encouragingly before handing out some masking tape.

Ah, well. Now we’re talking. There’s a lot that I can do with tape.

I wait for the tape to come around, but the front row are having way too much fun with it, wrapping it around their heads and under their chins as they create elaborate constructions.

“Three minutes!” shouts Ele.

Three minutes. Shit. Okay.

I fold the paper in half. Unfold, and then refold. But the other way. I then tear it in two.

“Two minutes!”

With my thumb, I pock through two eye holes.

“One minute!”

I look up, trying to see if any tape as made it to the second row. Nope. I’m on my own here.

Right then. I lay one side of paper over the other, and concertina the short edges together so that they just about hold together. That’ll do. Not exactly a helmet. It’s lacking the head covering element that the word helmet suggests. It’s more of a mask really. But without tape…

I look around to see what others have done.

Someone has created a sort of 18th century bonnet construction that looks rather dapper. While her friend has curved the paper right over her head, leaving a hole for her bun. That one is rather good too. Both of them used tape though.

Niamh and Ele come around to inspect our work.

“That’s really rather impressive,” says Ele to the bonnet girl. “Have you done this before?”

Bonnet girl nods. She has.

“I can tell… Would you mind coming on stage?”

Turns out bonnet girl would love to go on stage. Which is a good thing, as Ele and Niamh have more in mind for her than a mere fashion parade. They’re going to teach her how to do a battle cry.

Niamh sucks in all the air in the room and lets out a roar.

Eel prepares herself. She cracks her neck and loosens up her shoulders.

We wait.

She cracks her neck and loosens her shoulders again.

And again.

Then she stops.

She’s done.

Okay, it’s bonnet girl’s turn.

Bonnet girl pauses, considering her options. She’s just witnessed two masters at work. She’s got to make it good.

With a flutter of her fingers, she lets out a tiny sigh.

There.

Battle cry done, it’s time to ride off.

“We’ve got a recorder over here,” says Niamh.

Someone in the audience shoots up there hand. “I can play!” she announces.

“Can you? Can you really?” asks Niamh.

The hand shooter confirms that yes, she can. But only the one tune.

“You do you,” says Niamh, handing over the instrument.

And to the sounds of Three Blind Mice, the three of them trot around the stage, depositing bonnet girl back in her seat.

Introduction now over. It’s time for the actual play.

It’s about the peasant revolt of 1381.

Everyone’s angry about taxes. Wat Tyler is going to lead the rebels to London.

And… something’s going on. The front of housers are whispering in the corner.

The director gets up from her seat and rushes over.

There’s a police officer. Standing by the entrance. Talking to the ushers.

The cast press on. I try my best to concentrate, but I can’t help but look over. The police officer looks intense. She’s not letting up.

The director turns to us. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. The cast stumble into silence. “We’re just going to stop the show for a few minutes. If you could all stay in your seats. Actors, you stay on stage please.”

Oh. Oh dear. This does not sound good. Has something happened? In the theatre? Has there been a bomb threat. I bet there’s been a bomb threat. Or perhaps there’s a fire outside. No, they’d be evacuating us if that were the case. Or would they? I mean… fuck. I don’t know.

We all sit quietly, and I can’t help but think of that experiment where psychologists pumped a white gas into a room of people and waited to see what happened. Nothing, it turns out. The people in the room just sat there. All of them waiting for someone else to raise the alarm.

The director looks over to the cast and lowers her voice. “Romario?” She beckons to the actor playing Wat.

He looks back at her, his face reflecting the bafflement in all of ours.

She beckons again.

He steps forward cautiously, off the stage, his arms lifted either side of him, the very picture of confusion. He goes with the police officer.

The director’s lanyard bounces as she rushes to the other side of the room and whispers to someone sitting in the corner.

A second later, she’s by the stage, calling the actors in a huddle.

They nod.

A decision has been made.

“This is Adebayo,” she announces, indicating a young man in a red tracksuit. The person she’d been whispering to in the corner. “He’s our assistant director. He will be stepping in. This is a huge challenge for him, and the rest of the cast, so I hope you will be very supportive.”

We all applaud. But I can’t help but think of Romario.

I hope he’s okay.

I hope his family is okay.

A police officer knocking on the door is never good news. But stopping a play? Fucking hell.

My mind can’t help but go to the car crash my mum was in when I was a kid. And the police having to find my dad to tell him that his wife was in hospital. Fuck. I really hope Romario’s mum is okay. And all the rest of his family members for that matter.

Adebayo steps onto the stage, clutching a script. The cast sing around him, and he keeps his head lowered, his eyes on wodge of papers in his hands, his lips moving as he feverishly reads it.

But all those hours in the rehearsal room must be paying off, because soon he is merely glancing at the lines, and then he’s leaving the script on a stool while he joins in with the action. When it comes time to leave the stage, he takes the stool, and leaves the script.

He’s really going for it. Leading his rebels in a choreographed march around the stage, joining in with the perfectly timed chants, and then delivering a perfect rap performance…

Hang on.

What the fuck? Did I hear that right? Did he really just say “Red Power Ranger”? Like the red tracksuit he’s wearing…

Those fuckers. It’s staged. They staged it.

Did they?

No.

They couldn’t have.

Could they?

Oh fuck. I can’t tell.

Adebayo is back, clutching his abdomen. His hoodie’s unzipped. There’s blood on his t-shirt. Blood on his white t-shirt. Blood that would not have shown up on Romario’s dark robes.

A film appears, projected on the white sail hanging over the stage.

It’s the ensemble. Lolling around on the floor, tapping away on their laptops. It’s a documentary. The making of the very play we’re seeing. And there’s Romario, grinning away with the group.

They’re going on the hunt for the Lord Mayor of London. The present one. Not the 1381 one. That one's dead.

They go on a field trip. Into the City. City with a capital C.

Romario tries to get past a security guard. He’s quickly rebuffed.

He tries again.

This time he gets pushed.

After some more failed attempts by the ensemble, the film ends.

There’s a closing note. They never did get a reply from the Lord Mayor.

And something else: “Romario was issued a police caution.”

Bonnet girl gasps. “It was a set up!”

When the cast return for the curtain call, Romario is amongst them.

The police officer, however, is not.

We file out slowly. All of us turning around, looking back, as if expecting someone to come out and announce it was all a charade.

“I don’t think it was pretend,” says a bloke walking behind me. “I think he really did have to get taken out.”

I don’t know, man.

And I don't like not knowing. It makes me feel itchy and uncomfortable.

Either way, I hope his mum is okay.

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Farcing about

Next time I say that walking from Tufnell Park up towards Highgate might be a nice thing to do of an evening, please remind me that I'm not a fit person to make such statements. I'm not a fit person at all. Because that hill is not fun. It is the opposite of fun. If there was any fun to be had, it got left behind in Archway.

Shakey of limb and red of face, I make it to the Gatehouse pub and stand back to admire it in all its mock-Tudor glory, and catch my breath.

It's a fancy pub. I can tell that by the menu being posted outside in a shiny glass and metal box. The steps leading up to the door and a checkboard of ivory and terracotta. A glass lantern hangs overhead. And a cherub watches me balefully from his panel tucked under the door's canopy roof.

Something about the cherub is bothering me. His smug fatty cheeks, and wings coming out of his head, just seem to say: you can't come in here. Well, I won't be talked to like that by any plaster pipsqueak, so I walk all the way around the building looking for another entrance.

Over on the opposite side, there's another door. No cherub. But it does have a sign. "Pub & Theatre Entrance," it says in golden serifs.

It's almost like I knew. I've never been here before, but this marathon is starting to give me a sixth-sense about how these places work. Well, that's what I think. And it's either that or the cherub really was a smug little bastard who didn't want me walking in under him.

I go in. It's very dark here. All wood panelling and low lighting. The kind of pub you could imagine falling asleep with a hot toddy waking up a century later to find everything looking exactly the same. Oh well, barring any accidental encounters with a spindle, hundred year sleeps are not on the agenda for me right now. There's a door marked THEATRE EXTRANCE right here, so I think that's where I'm supposed to be heading. The wood-panelled aesthetic continues into the small foyer, offset by a pile of Edinburgh Fringe brochures and a chalkboard advertising interval drinks. Through another door (this one marked "Box Office Upstairs" with a handy arrow to point the way) and... I seem to have walked into a juniper berry.

Everything is purple. Or lilac, rather. The walls. The window frames. The ceiling. It's like the theatre had a mid-life crisis while reading taht Jenny Joseph poem.

When I am old, I shall paint myself purple. With a notice board which has too many posters, and looks a bit messy. And I shall spend my ticket income on sets and new writing.

And... well, you get it. I'm not a poet. My lack of rhythm extends beyond my inability to clap in time with music.

Up the stairs, round the corner, up more stairs and here we are, I guess. They really weren't kidding when they called this place Upstairs at the Gatehouse, were they?

Blimey, they're not short of room up here. I wide foyer, with the box office in its own separate room up ahead, and what looks like another bar off to the left and the theatre entrance off to the right.

I go to the box office. No balancing lurking in a corner, or balancing on a ledge here. This box office is a proper counter, larger than most off west end houses. It's also purple.

And there are headshots everywhere. I'm beginning to think I might be in the lair of a serial killer. One who is obsessed with fringe theatre.

I give my name to the box office lady, get my name checked off on a piece of paper, then she does something on the computer and a few seconds later, a paper ticket is printing. That's a sure sign of a box office system that is made of processes cobbled together, patched up, and in need of a good overhaul, but I don't even care because I got myself a paper ticket out of it, and it's frickin' purple.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask, spotting a display of them on the counter. They're three quid, which is a bit of a bargain as they look like there's quite a few pages going on there.

Programme and ticket acquired I make my way back to the foyer. It looks like the house is open, so I figure I should go in.

There's a pair of furry creatures balanced on a low table by the door. They're wearing dresses. I want to take a photo but the ticket checker is looking at me so I scoot over to her and show her my ticket.

Seats are unallocated, so she just waves me inside, and I walk straight into a living room.

Green walls. A sofa with cushions. Coffee table. The type of bookshelves that someone who doesn't read would own.

And about 100 chairs facing it.

The stage at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is massive. Yes, in pub theatre terms, but even more than that. It just goes on and on. Fitting what looks like an entire flat on it. A flat larger than most people in London would ever even get the sniff of the chance of living in.

I pick a seat someone in the middle row, forgoing my usual end of third row choice, as the end of the row is all the way in the distance and I'm not sure my legs can take the extra mileage after all those stairs after my mighty trek up the highest hill in the world, or at least London, or at least north London, or at least... I'm not Googling this. Just take my word for it. The hill is very high.

It's still early, and there aren't many people in yet, giving my a good chance to turn around in my seat and inspect what's happening behind me.

The seats all have those little plaques attached to them, where theatre fans have given money in exchange for the honour of having someone sit on their name until the upholstery gives out.

The back row is different though. Blue seats where the rest of us have red. Wider, and comfier looking too. And every single one of them has a reserved sign attached to it. Like, literally attached. As in the word 'reserved' is printed on a satin banner which flips over to indicate the reserved status of the seat.

Gradually people come in, and sure enough, most of the reserved seats are claimed.

The rest of us space ourselves out more. Most going for the front row, but a dedicated contingent choosing the separate bank over at the far end.

And almost all of them... gosh, how do I say this politely. Hmmm. Let's go with: almost all of them look like they live in Highgate. Yeah, that'll do. You know what I mean.

A man in a waistcoat leans against an empty seat to chat to some second rowers.

There's a lot of then going on. Chatter between the different rows.

Local theatre for local people.

It's a thing, I'm telling you.

The man with the waistcoat disappears, and comes back with a small stack of programmes.

"Does anyone need a progamme?" he asks, making his way down the row of seats, the programmes displayed in an attractive fan.

They are nice programmes, with a wrap-around image of a block of flats on the cover, which I'm enjoying. There's a short note from the playwright. And wee little pictures of mice scurrying around in between the biographies. Most interesting of all though, is the programme designer, Corinna Bordoli, is credited amongst the creatives for the production. And why not? Programme designers are integral to the theatre-going experience. At least, they're integral to my theatre-going experience. I like it.

Waistcoat-man is back again, hands-free of programmes now.

"I don't know if you're here for the post-show talk," he says, taking up position at the front of the stage area. "If not, I've got a nice surprise for you! The cast and the writer will come out and we'll have a nice chat about the play. It'll be in here. Not the pub. There's too many of us, though we'd all like to go to the pub." He throws out his arms as an apology for the lack of pub-location. "We'll give you a few minutes at the end, just in case you don't want to stay, but please do." Another apologetic gesture with his arms. "Anyway, we've got a play to get on with.." he says, leaving the stage.

His voice is replaced by one of the sound systems.

"Please take your glasses down to the bar during the interval, or at the end of the show," the disembodied voice says. "Switch off your mobile phones, or anything that beeps or vibrates."

"That would be interesting," a lady sitting in the third row whispers loudly as the lights dim.

Jennifer Matter rushes on stage. A minute later, she sits down, crossing her legs. Her red dress rucks up, revealing lacey stocking tops and suspenders.

There's a shocked gasp for a woman in the front row.

More gasps, and indeed, titters, follow as Matter takes off the red dress, to reveal the exact top of lingerie that you are probably imagining.

Ah, I can see what sort of play this is going to be. And yup, sure enough, despite the multiple references to millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the rest of it, we are firmly in the realm of seventies farce. With all the door slamming, mistaken identities, outfit knicking, and gender confusion of it all.

It's enjoyable though, and the interval rolls around soon enough. I go off to explore what exacting is the Green Room and what happens in there.

Eating ice cream, apparently. Because that's what everyone is doing. With the pub below, the drinkers have all gone downstairs to fill their glasses. Everyone else is in here, buying two quid ice creams out of the massive freezer.

It feels like Flat Out’s writer, Jennifer Selway, not only wants to have her cake and eat it too, but also wants a slice of everyone else’s. She’ll put in all those grandious lines of there being nothing wrong with a gentlemen enjoying a good pencil skirt, but she has no qualms with using said gentleman for laughs when he puts on a dress. She wants us to nod knowingly along when a character declares she couldn’t sleep with someone who voted to leave, but then uses a character’s Ukraian accent as the basis for a crude joke.

It’s all a little tiresome.

And confusing.

Who is this play meant for?

The guffawing old men of Highgate? Or those young millennials, who Jake Mitchell’s property developing scoundrel so rightfully points out, aren’t prepared to feel sorry for someone with a second home in South Ken any time soon. Even if it does have rats.

As with all farces, the final scene takes a long time to wrap up., but we get there eventually.

I don't stay for the talk.

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Kill Bloggers

Right then. Here we are, back at The Pleasance. It’s my last trip of the marathon. Two spaces down, one to go. And I’m feeling determined. Not about the show. The show’s fine. That will happen... probably. I just need to make sure I get there on time.

No, what I’m psyching myself up for is the ticket.

Or rather the paper ticket.

Two times I’ve asked for one, and two times I’ve been fobbed off with inferior, and frankly unacceptable, e-tickets, while all around other theatre-goers fan themselves with their fancy yellow paper tickets, flaunting their superior negotiating skills.

This time however, I’m not giving up. It’s my last chance. If I don’t get a paper ticket tonight, then I never will.

I am fully prepared to do what it takes. Beg. Cry. Stomp my foot. Prostrate myself on the floor. Throw a full scale toddler-style temper tantrum. Hunger strike. Whatever. I am placing no limits on my behaviour in pursuit of this paper ticket.

As I walk over the grey cobbles that separate Caledonian Park and Shearling Way, I accidentally find myself as an extra in a music video, as some young person raps away while balancing on the low brick wall while getting filmed by his mate with an iPhone.

It’s not raining, but huge droplets land at random, and the threat of an oncoming downpour sends the rapper and his mate off in search of shelter before their song is done. At least, I hope that’s the reason, and not the woman wearing an oversized check jacket wandering around in the back of their shot.

I round the corner, and walk the last few minutes alone. The streets are really quiet round here. Those large wet droplets have scared away even the most ardent outdoor lovers. All the tables laid out below the Pleasance are empty save for a slick of dampness on their surfaces.

I go up the stairs, glancing over the railing to have a look at the big pulleys that hang over the courtyard below. They are fantastically heavy duty, and make a great picture with the cheerful bunty hanging there below and the bright signage of the Pleasance Downstairs theatre in the background.

There’s where I’m going to be tonight. The downstairs theatre. Last one on my list for the Pleasance.

Let’s do this thing.

I go inside and aim straight for the ticket machine. The bright yellow monster that sits next to box office. You may well ask yourself how I’d managed to miss it so completely on my previous visits. I sure ask myself that question every damn day.

The screens, which had previously shown adverts for upcoming shows, are dark.

I stand there, staring at it.

It can’t be broken. It just can’t. I refuse to accept it.

There’s a sign stuck to the front. It’s not an out of order sign though. If anything, it’s the complete opposite - giving instructions for use.

I decide to give it a go, as if pure force of will would spur circuits into action. I get out my card, and swipe it, as instructed. Upside down. Magnetic stripe facing me.

Nothing.

The screens remain resolutely dark.

“Is the ticket machine not working?” I ask the lady sitting behind box office. I try and say it as casually as possible, not letting the trauma raging beneath squeak out in my voice.

“No,” she says. “Sorry about that. Are you collecting?”

“Yes,” I say, swallowing my heavy sigh and sliding over to the desk. I really don’t fancy going all toddler tantrum right here but I’m steeling myself to the fact that I might just have to.

“What show is it?”

Errr. Fuck. Why can I never remember? My eyes land on a pile of freesheets resting on the counter. “Kill Climate Deniers,” I read.

“And the surname?”

“Smiles.”

“And the postcode?”

Err. My eyes cast around. Sadly there are no freesheets with my address lying on them. Somewhere deep inside, a neuron sparks, and I manage to say it before it splutters out once more.

She nods, and a second later a ream of yellow tickets are puttering out of the machine under the counter.

She tears them off, folds them up neatly, and hands them over.

“I…. thank you!” I say, taking them from her. I think my hand is shaking.

Is that it? Did I do it? Did I manage to get a printed ticket out of the Pleasance? And from their box office, no less!

I actually did it!

Or rather, the lovely box office lady did it.

No, we did it. Together. The pair of us. A team.

“There’s also a freesheet,” she says, indicating the pile.

I want to cry.

I take one. Then another. Just in case.

“The show’s in the downstairs theatre,” she says, pretending, very sweetly, not to notice the emotional crisis I’m going through in front of her.

“Oh, yes,” I say, managing to pull myself together for a few more seconds. “Do I have to go out and down?” I ask, pointing in the general direction of the pulleys.

“No. You'll go through here,” she says, pointing in the opposite direction, towards a black fire door off in the corner. ”Someone will call you when it's time to go down.”

I retreat with my prizes to the tables off to the side, where I stare at them for far too long.

I am really, really pleased with myself.

I take a photo of it and text it to a couple of friends.

They are perplexed, but do a good job of being supportively excited about my victory.

I lay the ticket reverently on the table and look at the cast sheet. It’s a decent cast sheet. There’s some stuff about blocking out the sun for the purposes of temperature control on the back, which is a little worrying, despite the cheerful looking drawing to illustrate the process (it’s done with balloons, apparently). I hastily turn it back over. Not sure I want to be looking at that. All sounds a bit super-villain if I’m honest. Something on the front catches my eye. A trigger warning. Or is it called a content warning now? Whichever. One of those.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised that the following production may contain images of people who have died.”

I read it. Then I read it again, just to make sure I understand.

Is it… I can’t tell… are they trying to be funny here?

I break it down into parts, reading each one multiple times.

The first part, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised,” is very specific. But okay.

“That the following production may contain images.” May contain images? May? Do they not know?

Now, I’ve gone to print on programmes before a show is fully finalised. I know the panic that ensues when something comes up the day a new production opens and you suddenly have to coordinate the printing and distribution of several hundred programme slips. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this on a freesheet. A freesheet which has obviously, and I don’t mean to be rude here because I do it myself, been run off a photocopier, and therefore doesn't require much time to print.

Moving on. “Of people who have died.” People. Just people. A phrase as broad as the first one was narrow.

Why are only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members being advised of this? Are there Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dead people? Is that why? If it isn’t, why aren’t we all being advised? And how do they not know? Is the showing of dead people somehow randomised between shows? French and Germans one performance, Americans and Marshall Islanders the next.

I am very confused.

A front of houser walks past. “Five minutes. Fuck, what’s going on!” he says to himself, as he makes his way to the box office. A minute later, he’s coming back. “Are you here for Climate Deniers?” he asks the few people hanging around. We nod. We are.

Five minutes soon becomes three, then two, then…

“The house is now open for Kill Climate Deniers,” says the front of houser, taking up position in the pivot point between the bar and the foyer. “The show is one hour thirty minutes with no interval. There's no remittance so if you have to go wee-wee do it now. Err,” he pauses. “There's an adult way to say that…” He regroups. “You can take drinks in plastic cups and... Follow me!”

He marches over to the fire door, and opens it for us, nodding as we flash our tickets at him.

Down a staircase lined with posters made of posters - all collaged together with a sign on top pointing the way to the loos and the bar in one direction, and the downstairs theatre in the other.

There’s someone to meet us at the bottom, ready and waiting with a ticket beeper in hand. I do like a ticket beeper. When it’s not my phone that needs beeping.

“Sorry,” she says as a packet of cigarettes drops to the ground and she crouches down to retrieve them.

No need to apologise. I’m just here to get my ticket beeped!

She obliges and I go past, up some metal steps and onto the next person.

I show her my ticket.

She waves me past. “It’s free seating,” she says with a hand movement that indicates she has no interest in my paper ticket and it might as well be yesterday's Evening Standard for all she cares.

I put the ticket away safely in my pocket and go in.

It takes a few seconds for my brain to catch up with what I’m seeing. Somehow, this is not what I expected. The stage is sunken, surrounded on all four sides by purple seat. Double seats, I notice. Since telling my seat-neighbour at Soho Theatre that double-seats were a thing that didn’t exist I've been seeing them absolutely everywhere.

Turns out people have had to coordinate their sitting down together in theatres all over London, and I didn’t even notice.

That is not my fate tonight though. I have a double-wide all to myself.

In fact, everyone in the audience could have claimed a wide seat of their very own if they had a mind to. There aren’t many of us here. Not that it’s empty. Just… not full. Really not full. We are in serious Tuesday-night levels of not-fullness right now.

But the banging eighties tunes blaring over the sound system are doing their very best to fill the space and the energy is happy, if not exactly bouncing.

A door opens.

Not a door.

The door. The door we had come through earlier as audience members.

But this is definitely an actor. He’s holds up a copy of the playtext. The same playtext that had been available for sale from the box office for the mighty sum of five pounds.

Kill Climate Deniers.

It’s his play.

I mean, it’s not his play. The play was written by David Finnigan, and this dude is Nathan Coenen playing the role of David Finnigan (or Finig, according to the cast sheet). But for the purposes of us sitting, hearing this tale, it’s his play.

He taps the front of the book, in what must be the most meta use of a prop in theatre history.

He tells us about the title, and all the spiralling problems that resulted from it.

Which, I mean, okay, it's a little bit inflammatory. But with all the Tumblr kids threatening to eat the rich at the moment, merely killing a climate denier sounds a little... twee. It's hard to imagine anyone getting worked up about it.

But all these explanations are only a framing device for the actual play. The one that is apparently riling everyone up. A play about terrorists, the Australian environment minister, her press rep, and some quality eighties bangers.

The cast rush in and out of the doors. That first door, and another one the leads from the outside world straight onto the stage, so we get glimpses of daylight every time they come on.

Good thing the rain has cleared up.

"Bloggers mean nothing,” says Kelly Paterniti in her role as press rep when Felicity Ward's environment minister is confronted by an online journalist. She scans the audience, daring the bloggers to reveal themselves. “If you are a blogger, you mean nothing.” I purse my lips and try not to giggle. You tell ‘em love, bloggers are scum.

But she’s not done with her blogger-baiting. “If there is a blogger within earshot I hope they get sick and die.”

I press my lips together even harder, and stifle the cough that is suddenly attacking the back of my throat.

It's hard to stay mad at her, she's wearing a great dress and I kinda want it. Dammit. Costume envy strikes again, and isn't going anywhere fast as Bec Hill appears wearing an amazing cut off leather jacket with the most extraordinary black eyeshadow action going on, that I am definitely going to attempt, but fail to recreate, at some point very soon. And clearly pink Lennon glasses are now a trend in London theatre, because look, Hannah Ellis Ryan is wearing them too. God, this cast looks cool.

That is, until they start to dance.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that they can't dance. But when you are attempting to recreate a rave atmosphere in a theatre, it helps to have more than ten people in it. And having the story stopped in order for the playwright, who isn't actually the playwright, to tell us more about the history of the play, means we're stuck in a Sisyphean loop of building up energy only to have it put on hold and let to drain away before starting it up again.

A few people in the front row bop around to show willing, but I'm not a bopper even at the best of time so I leave them too it.

The cast point guns at people, take swigs from an audience member's drink, and accuse an innocent man in the front row of writing for the Daily Mail. All with the playwright-who-isn't-a-playwright there to step in and apologise on his play's behalf, rendering it all rather... sweet really. Made toothless by cavities.

After the bows Felicity Ward leans forward towards the front row. "Thank you for being a nice Tuesday audience."

Yeah.

I wonder what the playwright, who is actually the playwright, thinks about paper tickets.

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Hoxton Hall, Apparently

Huh. This place... does not look how I expected. That's a bit embarrassing. I worked just round the corner from this place for a good 18 months. I've probably even walked past without even noticing. And why would I notice? This is not the type of place the name insinuated.

I mean, Hoxton Hall. I was expecting something a bit, well, grander. Or at least, grandeur. Not like a country house or whatever. I wasn't picturing Longleat here. But wasn't this place a music hall back in the day? Perhaps Wilton's has set up unachievable standards in my head. But this narrow slip of a building, with its sliding glass doors and taupe painted fronted really wasn't what I had in mind. Somehow music hall and subtly don't strike me as two terms that should ever be placed within the same sentence. But Hoxton Hall, if this is indeed Hoxton Hall, which I'm still doubting despite the multiple signs stating that this is exacting what it is, looks like nothing more than a tasteful townhouse next to the rackety family butchers next door.

If this place really is a former music hall, it must be the smallest music hall in London. I can't imagine more than three people, a pair of contortionists, and their dog, ever fitting in here. You'd think they' made more of a thing of it.

Inside it's bright and clean and modern, all creams and blond wood. There's a wide box office desk. The sort you'd see gracing the reception of an up-market dentist, except here, tiny display cases are set into the surface, housing artefacts of the buildings former glory days. Back when sawdust coated the floor instead of all these gleaming floorboards.

There's someone in the queue ahead of me. "I'm collecting tickets?" she says. Something tells me that this is not a transaction she does all that often.

"Yes? What the name?"

She gives it. "Oh, wait. Do you mean first name?" She gives that too.

"Right that's..." she opens up the ream of tickets and counts them. "Five tickets. If you could just make your way down to the bar area," she says, indicating the way.

It's my turn now.

"The surname is Smiles?"

The lady on box office reopens the small ticket box and digs out mine. "First name?"

"Max," I say, before remembering I never use that version when buying tickets. "Maxine."

The box office lady opens up the ream. It's a lot shorter than my predecessors.

"Just the one ticket?" she asks.

"Yeah..." Alright, love. Do you know how many friends I would need to have a companion at every show I saw? There aren't enough theatre-fans in the world to keep up with the likes of me.

She offers me a sympathetic smile. "If you could make your way down to the bar area as well..."

I walk in the direction she's pointing, down a long corridor. Very long. This building may be narrow, but it goes on forever. Past a display covered in headshots and CVs, past the dark wood doors to the auditorium, guarded by sentinels at every door, past stairs, past a lift, and into the bar.

Finally, things are beginning to look more music hally. The walls are red, and covered with framed portraits and old letters and whatnot. The blue-tiled fireplace is stuffed with show flyers. There are jam jars lined up on the mantlepiece. A box of PG tips is waiting at the end of the bar.

When I come in, people look around, but only for a second. They're already beaming and beckoning at the people behind me.

Hands wave, empty spaces on the sofa are patted. This truly is a bar where everyone knows your name.

None mine though. I'm not part of the gang.

A group of people are all being introduced to each other as they queue at the bar.

"Are you here to see someone?"

"Yes, Charlotte!"

"Charlotteeee!"

"Oh, this is Erin's mum."

"Hello!"

The chatter grows in volume as everyone tries to work out their connections to one another. It's like a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation. Except no one here needs more than two rounds.

Young people reel off their resumes to the parents of their friends, while the grown-ups talk about their brilliant kids while staring into their drinks in order to hide their proud smiles.

If you haven't already guessed, this is one of those drama school gigs. I'm branching out from the RADA and LAMDA diptych. I'm in Rose Bruford country now.

And, it turns out, Rose Bruford family country.

You don't get that at RADA, I can tell you.

I find an empty bit of wall to lean against and try to avoid getting swapped by a reunion.

I've already written up my last theatre trip so I'm left starting at the signage in lieu of something to do. To be fair, it's impressive signage.

"Lost?" it asks, with what I can only imagine is the same sympathetic tones of the box office lady when she handed me my single loner ticket. That smug question is followed up by a floor by floor breakdown of everything in the building. Want to know where the reading room is? This sign will tell you. The kitchen? Yup, it's got that one covered too.

Music studio. Art studio. Design studio.

This place has a lot of studios.

And a courtyard.

A courtyard? Now that's exciting. I do like a courtyard.

Basement level.

I mean, I could go. I have time.

There are windows in the stairwell, overlooking a grim little patio with a corrugated metal roof.

But there's also a plant and a table and I'm still fairly upbeat about the while courtyard thing.

There's another sign at the bottom if the stairs, and yet another when I turn left.

Hoxton Hall doesn't stint on the signage.

Except, I'm not sure where I'm meant to go now. The sign says right, but all that's right is the art studio and the loos. After that, nothing but brick wall. Unless this is some Platform 9 3/4 situation, I think I've gone wrong somewhere.

Unless it's through the art studio? It should be somewhere to the left of me. I have a peek through the art studio door, only to come face to face with someone coming the other way.

Not wanting to explain what I'm doing attempting to break into an art studio, I noe out of the whole situation and go back upstairs, my courtyard dreams dashed.

The house still isn't open and the bar is rammed. But my wall spot is still going spare, so I reclaim it.

"Sorry!" calls the man behind the bar over the sound of a hundred parental hearts popping with pride. "Hello, hello! Can I have your attention?

"Anyone who's been given a brochure, or one of these, " he says, flapping about a free drinks voucher between his fingers. "Will be admitted first."

No one moves. We aren't the lucky few. No free drinks vouchers here.

Talk resumes.

"Do you come to these things often?"

"Oh, I see everything. Ever since my daughter joined."

Her smile is so broad I can see all her back teeth. She is absolutely busting with pride.

The man behind the bar tries again. "Anyone been given a brochure or one of these?" he asks, giving the pink voucher another wave. "Now's the time. Anyone else?"

Nope. No one else.

I get out my programme. Always a bonus of these drama school shows, the free programme.

I try to remember which show I booked for.

It's Life, Apparently. Apparently.

A new musical created by two of the cast members.

This is either going to be brilliant, or excruciating.

I'm putting money on the later. For no other reason than the presence of that comma: Life, Apparently.

I don't think I can trust a title with a comma in it.

Although, I'm trying hard to think of other titles with commas in it, and I'm coming up short. There's Girl, Interrupted of course. But that comma was integral to the flow of the title. An interruption, if one will.

I can't think of any others.

It could be worse, I suppose. It could be an exclamation mark: Life! Apparently. That really would spell the end of days.

From my spot on the wall, I seem to have found myself in the queue to get in. A queue that is now moving.

"The toilets are an even worse stare than yesterday, if you can believe it," tuts a woman as she joins the queue after me.

I think I must be the only one who hasn't seen this show before. Who hasn't even been to this theatre before? I hope there isn't a test. Unless, there was a test and I've already failed it. They're probably all giggling about the woman who couldn't even find the courtyard back in the bar.

"That's not a ticket, that's just your address, " an usher says gently to the person in front of me.

I breath a sigh of relief. I'm clearly not the only one failing at tonight.

They retreat back from the queue as they attempt to find their ticket, and now it's my turn.

"The seats are unreserved except for the two back rows," says the ticket checker, checking my ticket.

There must have been a lot of people with free drinks vouchers because there is not a lot of room left.

I scan the stalls, looking for spare seats.

"Don't go too far," said a bloke as his companion rising a few inches from her seat. "We don't want to lose these spots."

Another guy is hovering at the end of his row, also clearly concerned about seat pillaging. He sees me eyeing up the empty seats further in.

"Do you want the three seats in the middle?" he asks.

I'm not sure I'll need all three sears, but I accept the offer anyway, and he steps out into the aisle so that I can get through.

"Hang on," says the woman he's with. "Let me get out too." She too inches her way out into the aisle.

Route cleared, I squeeze myself in. It really us a squeeze. The seats knock my knees as I shuffle my way in, and there's no room to turn around when I do get in. I have to kneel on my chosen seat, just to find the wriggle room to get my jacket off.

The chairs, thin and delicate, belonging more in a dining room than a theatre, and pressed in right next to each other.

"There's someone very tall this side, can we go that way," says someone in the row behind as the seat negotiations begin.

"Yeah, I can't see a thing."

"Granny can't see a thing!"

It doesn't look like there's anything to see quite yet. The high stage is empty except for a smattering of instruments tucked up amongst the ladders that seem to be serving as our set.

"If you want to report back that the chairs at not comfortable," says a woman in the row in front.

The reporter nods sagely. He will be having words.

I have to agree with them the chairs are not comfortable.

It's a good thing I'm got these three seats to myself. If I turn my body just so, I might be able to stretch my legs out a bit.

"Excuse me, are you expecting anyone?" asks a young man, indicating the spare seats. I have to admit that I am not, and we are soon all crammed in close to one another. Close enough that I can smell the vile coffee breath of the man sitting on my left, and hear the wet chew as he applies his teeth to his nails. Close enough that I can feel every time the man on my right attempts to shift his muscles as the ache sets in.

I look longingly at the two empty balconies surrounding the hall. Oh, to be sitting up there, looking down on the poor creatures below.

The show starts. The cast come on, performing stange unnatural arm movements that should be left in the artier end of contemporary choreography scale.

I try to sink into my seat, but I'm stuck.

I should have known that a drama school musical was a bad idea.

But the echoed arm movements still, and the music takes over and we are flung into the New York of the eighties, into the AIDS crisis, and the activist group ACT UP. And, you know, it's good. Like, really good. Yes, it's really bizarre how these supposed Americans are talking about waistcoats and swearing with two fingers, but there is a character called Maxine and she's blonde and cool and wears the hell out of red lipstick and within minutes I'm positive that I will die for her.

Unfortunately, it might come to that.

All around there is a creaking of old wood as everyone attempts to relieve the agony of sitting still too long, but there is nowhere to go. Not an inch of free space to move into.

Pain shoots up the back of my legs, but I am cemented in place, my arms traped to my sides, my legs cooped in by the seat in front.

I can't even hear the music anymore. All I can think of is escape. Counting down the minutes of an unknown run time. How long have I been sat here? An hour? Two? I can't tell. Time is an illusion. All I know is pain.

As the last notes fade, the audience leaps to their feet, but I can't move. My knees have fused solid.

I curl my shoulders around and try to stretch out my back, but I have to wait until my row neighbours have vacated their seats before I am able to test out my legs.

They're still working. Just about. A bit wobbly, a bit stiff, but we'll survive.

The corridor is clogged with people all raving about how good everyone was, how excellent the show was.

I push my way through, unable to wait for the way to clear. I have to get outside.

I stumble out of the sliding doors and almost fall onto the pavement.

The sun is still shining. I'm surprised. I thought I might have been in there for an eternity. I thought the world would have burnt itself out by now.

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Glitter in the Rain

I’m really happy right now. Like, stupidly, happy. Bouncing down the street, happy. I feel like the Sharky Twins in Wolfie, throwing pocketfulls of sequins all over the place as a physical  manifestation of all the shiny joy that’s gurgling inside me. I have no reason for this happiness. I’ve been to some great fucking theatres recently. That helps. And people keep on smiling at me. That’s true. And also strange. Not sure what’s going on there. You’d think reading a black-bound copy of one of Kafka's short stories would be enough to put anyone off, but no. There they are, on the tube, gurning at me. It’s so weird I can’t help but gurn right back.

It’s all very troubling.

My happiness has grown to such excessive levels that people are starting to notice.

“That’s very positive of you!” said one of my co-workers this morning.

And she was right. It was very positive of me.

And it wasn’t even ten o’clock. Far too early to be positive about anything, let alone work.

If this goes on any longer, I’m going to get my Goth-card revoked.

But even after a full day listening to Nightwish on blast, I’m still springing my way through the rain like Tigger after a long session snorting lines of icing sugar at a birthday party.

Oh well. Might as well make the most of it before the inevitable crash sends my friends into intervention-crisis-mode again.

Damp of clothes, but not of spirits, I arrive at the Soho Theatre. it’s my second trip here of the marathon. I seem to be working my way down from the top. I’ve done the upstairs studio, now it’s the turn of the theatre space on the second floor, with only the basement left to go.

I give my name at the box office, basking in the reflection from the neon pink surround.

The lady behind the box office stares at me, waiting.

“Oh sorry,” I say. I had forgotten where I was. The theatre of a thousand shows. “It’s for Citysong.”

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A cat called Ghost

It’s Tuesday night, and I’m crouching on the ground in the middle of what looks like an industrial wasteland, clucking my tongue. It has just started to rain.

The reason I’m here is that I think there might be a theatre around here somewhere. I’m not exactly sure though. I’m just following my intuition on this one. I find, that when you’re in doubt about the location of a fringe venue, it’s always best to take the route that looks most likely to contain your murderer. That’s where fringe theatres tend to live. In the most scary of all the available options.

As to the ground crouching and tongue clicking, I've just met a cat. Pure white and very pretty. We’re making friends

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It's a damn cold night

It’s Monday and I’ve decided to be nice to myself today. Got a new top which I’m rather pleased with, and I’m wearing my favourite boots and my big gold hoops, and I’m feeling rather swish. I even put a massive satin bow in my hair, which is making strangers on the tube smile at me. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who enjoys being smiled at on the tube, but here we are. I must be getting soppy in my old age.

I’m taking this rather nifty outfit and me to the theatre tonight. Of course. I take myself to the theatre every night. But tonight is special because we’re going to one of my favourites: the Young Vic.

Now I’m not saying it’s my favourite because I love the work there, although I totally do. Or at least, I did. It’s hard to say now as they have a new AD and I’ve haven’t had the chance to check out what Kwame Kwei-Armah has been up to yet. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, rather cack-handedly, is that I really love the theatre. The building. The staff. The location. Everything.

You always get the feeling that they are looking after you there. That they have the audiences’ back. They call the front of housers the Welcome Team, which is the type of theatre wankery that I don’t personally have a lot of patience for, but I also recognise that this title was not created with people like me in mind, and that it probably does go a long way to welcoming the type of people that require a team called the Welcome Team.

Whatever they’re called, they’re great.

Always lovely and helpful to the above and beyond level of loveliness and helpfulness. Like, ridiculously so. I was once, many years ago, handed a pair of cupcakes when picking up my tickets because I’d been chatting with one of the box office team on Twitter forever and he’d fancied getting his bake on that day.

As loveliness and helpfulness go, home baked cupcakes are hard to beat.

Do you remember when Twitter was like that? When you could have a proper natter with the theatre social media accounts? Back before content teams were a thing, and you still knew the names of every person tweeting behind the official handle. And the not so official handles. Back in those days, the Young Vic had an unofficial account run by one of the box office team: @YVTeaBitch. Actually, thinking about it, it was the Tea Bitch who baked those cupcakes. It’s all coming back to me now. Carrot cake. With lots of cream cheese icing. They were bloody good.

The account is gone now. Properly gone. Not just dormant. Pity.

It would never happen today. If you were handed cupcakes by box office, there’d be someone with a smartphone standing by to capture the #theatremagic. And there is no way in hell an unofficial, and slightly sweary, theatre account could be allowed to bumble along without interference from the office-bods for so long.

2013 really was a heady year.

Anyway, enough about the past. We’ve moved on, haven’t we? It’s 2019, and I’ve got a theatre to get checked off the list.

“Sorry,” says a lady, stepping in front of me to stop me just as I’m rushing to cross the road. “Where’s the Aldwych Theatre?”

I point in the direction of the nearest theatre. “It’s that one,” I say before hurrying off. The countdown clicking its way to the lights changing.

Behind me I just hear her say, “They’re showing The Lion King!”

Shit. I just pointed at the Lyceum.

Which is, in case you haven’t noticed, not the Aldwych.

And it’s not like I don’t know where the Aldwych is. I went there last week. It’s in the friggin’ Aldwych. Clue is in the name and all that.

I really need a fucking holiday, I can tell you that.

Oh well. She’s gone now. Disappeared into the crowds. She’ll be okay. The good people at the Lyceum will see her right, I’m sure.

Failing that, she can watch the Lion King. It certainly can’t be worse than Tina - The Tina Turner Musical. I might have actually done her a favour.

I sprint across the road, the lights shifting to amber before I’m even half way across, the guilt chasing me safely to the other side before the cyclists run me over.

I cross my arms to keep my jacket close to me as I brave Waterloo Bridge. It’s really windy, and freezing. How did it get so cold so fast? My hands are completely numb. I’m beginning to regret wearing my new top today. It’s not exactly insulating. It’s made of mesh. The wind is going right through me. As for my ridiculously large ribbon, let’s just say that hair ribbons and windy bridges don’t mix. And that even soft satin can be a bit owie when it gets whipped in your face at fifteen miles per hours.

The strong breeze blows me half the way to The Cut, and I stumble the rest of the road by myself. There’s a lot of people out here, standing around in front of the theatre. There always are at the Young Vic. I can never tell why. The bar at the Young Vic is pretty famous. I can’t imagine wanting to stand around in the cold when there’s somewhere nice to sit down inside. But what do I know. Perhaps standing outside in the cold is the new hip thing to do.

There’s a bit of a queue at the box office, but they are zipping through it. I barely have a chance to snap a photo of the mirrored ceiling and the old tiled walls (left over from the building’s former life as a butcher shop, which is a fact which I’m fairly confident that I am not making up).

“Are you collecting,” asks the bloke behind the box office.

I tell him that I am.

“Is it for Death of a Salesman?”

Unfortunately not. “No, the other one,” I say, the name of the show completely evading me. “The one in the studio?” I can’t remember the name of the studio either. It’s not even a studio, really. It’s a whole ‘nother theatre.

No matter, he gets what I mean, jumping over to the smaller of the two ticket boxes.

“What’s the surname?”

I give it.

“And your postcode?”

I pause a fraction too long before my postcode decides to make an appearance in my brain. Blimey, that was scary. Not remembering the name of a show I can deal with. I was never much good at that. Pointing at the wrong theatre could just be classed as tourist-based-arseiness. But my own postcode? I should definitely be able to recall that. This marathon, man… It’s getting to me. It really is.

He nods. I got that one right. Phew.

“Just head through there,” he said, indicating the direction, “and it’s on the left. The doors should be opening in about fifteen minutes.”

There’s already a bit of a queue by the doors to the second theatre space. (The Maria, I remember that now that the high-pressure stakes of ticket negotiation are now over). Seating is unallocated, so it pays to get in line early. Seems everyone else got the memo too, because within minutes that queue is stretching right across the bar and all the way back to the box office.

It’s also blocking the loos. I’m conflicted about the loos. There’s a sign stating that visitors are free to use whichever loo the they feel most comfortable with (with the added bonus of gender neutral toilets upstairs), but annoyingly, they are really inconveniently located, right next to the doors to The Maria.

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

It’s only been a few minutes, and I already feel like I’ve excused half of London as I jump forward and back to let people through to the facilities.

A front of houser in a red polo shirt comes through. Sorry, I mean: a member of the welcome team in a red polo shirt comes through.

“Just wave your ticket at me at the door,” she says, taking my ticket and ripping off the stub. “Goldfish brain.” She hands back my ticket. “It's an hour and twenty straight through.”

Nice.

“Excuse me please,” says an old man.

I step back as far as I can go without trampling the person behind me.

He stands there, looking at me.

I stand there, looking at him.

“Well, go on then,” I say, rather rudely, and wave my hands to indicate that he should pass.

He bows his head and scuttles through.

I mean, really.

The lights above the bar are flashing. Death of a Salesman is going in. The bar begins to clear out as audience members head to their seats.

The Welcome Teamer returns. “I've done all your tickets, right?” she asks the queue in general. We all nod. Our tickets have all been shorn of their stubs.

Another old man appears. This one holding his hands in a prayer gesture, begging to get through.

I’m rather fed up with being the gatekeeper to the loos, and I sigh as I step back for him.

A second later, he returns, pushing through the queue in the other direction.

“Fucking idiot,” says a man standing behind me. “Realised the show was about to go in and that he didn’t need to go all that much after all.” He pauses. “Twat.”

The doors are opening.

As instructed, I flash my ticket at the Welcome Teamer. She nods. “Down to the bottom and turn left,” she says.

I follow the line through the brown corridor, down to the bottom, and then turn left.

The space has been sealed up with high white curtains. There’s a small gap and we each make our way through and into the theatre.

There’s another Welcome Teamer in here. “It's unreserved seating,” he says, handing me a freesheet. “Move down the rows please, as we’re sold out tonight.”

I don’t even have to think about it anymore. Third row, right at the end. It’s my spot now.

I take off my jacket and settle down, looking around to take in the space. You never know what you’re going to get in The Maria.

For Bronx Gothic, it looks like we’re getting a floor level stage, with raked seating on two sides, so that the stage forms the last quarter in this square space. All surrounded by those high white curtains, sealing us off from the world.

Carrier bags hang limply from the lighting rig above our heads, and lamps are strewn across the floor, as green shoots spurt out from underneath their shades. There’s even a small knot of grass working its way up from beside the front row, as if we have found ourselves in a forgotten ruin, given over to the unstoppable plant life.

And in the furthest corner, Okwui Okpokwasili.

She stands, shimmering and shimmering, facing away from us.

Body shuddering, shaking, as her hands twist elegantly with controlled rotations, she’s in her own world. One far away from the audience taking their seats behind her.

People are still coming in, through two different entrances.

The Welcome Teamers rush about as they try to keep their streams separate.

“How many of you are there?” the Welcome Teamer on my side asks a young girl as she leads in a big group.

The benches are filling up fast. And they don’t want to be split up.

He looks around and points. “There’s a whole row over there,” he says, and they traipse up towards it happily.

The lights are gradually fading. The darkness creeping in minute by minute.

I’m also happy with my choice of seat. The rake really is marvellous here. I can see clear over the tops of the heads of the people sitting in the row in front, with plenty of room to spare. The tallest person in the world could sit in front of me and I’d still have a great few.

This is what I mean about the Young Vic looking after their audiences. Ignore the loos. The location of the loos were a mistake. But here, in the theatre, someone, at some point, thought about how people would sit on these benches and would need a clear view of the stage. A surprisingly rare stop on the journey to show creation, judging from the seats I’ve been sat in this year.

The lights have dimmed to extinction.

The show has begun.

But the audience isn’t. One person pops through the white curtain. The Welcome Teamer closest to me jumps from his seat and motions for the newcomer to walk around the stage and join him in the front row. A second later another person appears, and he is also manoeuvred deftly into the front row.

Okpokwasili turns round. After ignoring us for so long, we are now the subjects of her gaze.

She shimmers and shakes, her head tipped back, her eyes fixed, still and then roving.

With a jolt I realise she is looking straight at me. She holds my gaze. The seconds stretch on into an uncomfortable eternity, before she moves onto someone else. I follow where the path of her eyes. She’s getting all of us, one by one, drawing us in.

And then she stops. The shimmering shakes stilling. Her muscles slackening.

She has a story to tell.

Two girls. Passing notes. One teacher, the other pupil. One beautiful, the other ugly. One ignorant, the other wordly.

Okpokwasili prowls around her corner square, explaining her choice of words. “You know what they mean when they say they’ll slap the black right off you?” She pauses, examining the line of white people sitting in the front row. “Well, maybe you don't,” she says.

The lights switch back on, blazing white. Then crash us back into darkness.

A Booming sound grows in pitch and volume until it becomes painfully loud. I want to cover my ears. Just as it becomes unbearable, the stop. The silence rings throbs through my body.

Okpokwasili’s tale skins in circles, doubling back on itself and picking up threads as it goes.

And then we are released.

“Just go straight on past the crowd,” says a Welcome Teamer as we make our way back down the brown corridor. “It's the interval for the other show, so it’s very busy.”

It is. So is the pavement outside. I rush down The Cut, catching my breath in the square opposite the Old Vic.

So much for a gentle start to the week.

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Stag Party

It's June! It's Pride month! And I'm off to the self-styled "home of the UK’s LGBT+ Theatre."

Yup, I'm off to Above the Stag.

It's almost like I planned it,

Now, if I were a decent blogger (or even a decent liar), I'd tell you that's exactly what I did. But I'm not, and I didn't. I was actually intending to get this one checked off the list in May, but a last-minute diary reshuffle had me bumping the home of the UK's LGBT+ Theatre over a couple of weeks. And it's only while I'm walking through Vauxhall, and seeing all the rainbow-tinged goodness everywhere, that I connect the brightly-flashing dots, and apologise to the theatre gods for spending so long bitching them out for messing with my calendar. I should have known they had this shit covered. I mean, someone has to. And I certainly don't.

It's a warm evening, and it looks like there's more people hanging out, drinks in hand, on the small square of grass outside the entrance, then there are gathered within.

I lean against a tree and try and get a photo of the theatre, but it's completely impossible. I can barely even see the entrance through the absolute party that seems to be going on our here. All I'm getting is a hazy purple light, glowing from within the curved glass frontage. A halo hanging over the heads of my fellow theatre-goers. It's all rather magical.

Despite the image conjured by the name, the Above the Stag is not actually above the Stag. It's not above anything, let alone a pub. If anything, it lies underneath. Tucked within one of the railway arches that live near Vauxhall station.

I decide it's time to go in.

It's pretty busy in here too. There's a massive queue at the bar, and every day is filled. No wonder the people are spilling out onto the street.

One end of the bar has been assigned to box office duties. There's a big sign screaming TICKETS up on the wall behind. The queue is significantly shorter on this end. There's only one person in front of me.

Not that anyone's serving. There are two people behind the bar and they are rushing back and forth, measuring spirits, pouring glasses of wine, and taking payments, all at the same time, as they fight to get through this queue of thirsty theatre-goers before the doors open.

But with our queue now composed of two, we manage to attract the attention of one of the bar people and she comes over to deal with the business of ticketage.

When it's my turn, I give my surname and the bar person taps away at my name on the touchscreen behind the counter. A second later a small printer buzzes, and my ticket emerges, printed on thin receipt paper. All very fancy.

The doors still aren't open, so I suppose I should find somewhere to stand. At least, I think they're not open. I don't actually know where they are. None of the doors around the edge of the room looks likely. And there's no THEATRE sign to match the TICKETS one above the bar.

But the bar is full, and there's still a healthy queue of people intent on getting their drinks, and no one looks overly concerned about going anywhere quite yet, so I find myself just hanging around, waiting for instruction.

I find myself darting back and forth as I try and get out of people's way. It really is very busy in here. All my darting and side-stepping gradually moves me from one side of the bar to the other, and I find myself standing amongst a small group, all clutching receipt-paper printed tickets in their hands. There's a set of double doors down here. Unmarked. Unlike the loos right next door. Through the small windows set into the doors I can see show posters. This must be it. And these people must be all the keen-bean theatre crowd, just bursting to get into the space. Or possibly, given our location busting for the loo. I can't quite tell. Bursting for something or other, for sure, though.

A voice comes over the tannoy. "Ladies and gentleman, the house is now open for Fanny and Stella. Please take your seats."

We look at the doors, and then at each other.

"Are we...are we just supposed to open the doors ourselves?" someone asks.

We all look back at the doors.

They are still closed. And don't look likely to open of their own accord any time soon.

This is getting ridiculous. What we need is a hero. Someone to step forward and liberate us from this bar, guiding us through the parted doors towards the promised land of the theatre.

Just as I am debating with myself whether that person could, or indeed should, be me, I am saved from such brave actions by a woman who pushes her way through the group, places her hand on the door, and pulls it open.

We all follow on meekly behind, passing the weight of the door between us as we go through.

We turn right. The light of the theatre almost blinding with its brightness. It's probably not a good idea to follow a guide towards a bright light, not unless you're prepared to never come back, but it looks so inviting I can't stop myself.

The posters on the wall shift from colour-filled sweet-wrappers, with the saturation turned up to max, to the text filled advertisements of the old music halls.

"Know where you're sitting?" asks a man dressed in a dandified top hat and tails.

He chats away, making bants with everyone coming through the door.

I find my seat without assistance, but I can't stop looking over at the dandy by the door.

He looks really rather familiar. If only I had a freesheet...

Except, hang on. Someone sitting in the row in front of me is flicking through something. A booklet. The kind of booklet, that if I didn't know better, would say looks exactly like a programme.

He stops mid-flick, turns back a page, and starts reading.

There are pictures interspersed with the text. Photos. Headshots.

That's a fucking programme.

He has a programme.

Where on earth did he get that? I want to lean forward and ask, but he's just a couple of seats too far along the row for that to be reasonable.

I sit back, and prepare myself for the long wait until the interval.

It's alright, I tell myself. At least I know there are programmes. They exist. Out there. Somewhere. And I'll find them, buy one, and damn well look this actor's name up before I combust.

I distract myself by looking around. It's nice in here. Wide seats. Allocated. And a magnificent rake. I can see right over the heads of the two tall blokes sitting in front of me.

"Oo. Lots of room here," says my neighbour, kicking our their legs to demonstrate the amount of room there is.

This is fringe theatre to the lux.

Every now in, and the doors closed, our dandy friend, whoever he may be, steps onto the stage. He's going to be our compere for the evening, in this tale of Fanny and Stella, the OG drag-queens of Victorian London.

And they're signing? Like properly. Not just a music hall ditty to illustrate what they're all about. But like, an opening number about sodomy. On the Strand. The cast's voices and the single piano fight against echo of trains rumbling overhead.

How did I not realise this was a musical? Oh well. I'm sold, bought, and paid for. Three times over. This is hilarious.

Too soon it's the interval, and still giggling, I make my way back to the bar.

I'm on a mission after all. Gotta get that programme.

I walk over to the bar. If they're anywhere, they must be here. And yes, there's one. In a display on-top of a glass case of confectionary. That was easy.

Buying one however, now that's where it gets tricky.

I'm already surrounded on all sides as everyone tries to place their drinks order at once.

A woman elbows me out of the way to get to the bar, and flags down a passing staff member to serve her.

"Sorry, sorry," she says, just as her wine is being poured. "I ordered sauvingnon blanc."

The server looks from the bottle in her hand, to the two glasses of red wine she just poured. "Yes, yes you did," she says, covering each glass with a napkin and going to fetch the right bottle.

The other server behind the bar comes up. He sees me. And another woman. He dithers between the two of his, finger-gunning as he decides who's up next.

"Sorry," I say to the other lady. "I just want a programme. Can I get a programme?"

"For which show?" he asks.

I'm stumped.

"Umm," I say, pointing vaguely in the direction of the theatre.

"Fanny and Stella," steps in the other lady, demonstrating more grace than I could ever be capable of.

"Yes. Thank you," I say, nodding to her. "That one."

He goes off to fetch a programme. They're £2.50, which isn't bad. Not bad at all.

Programme now acquired, I decide that I should probably get out of the way.

I flick through the pages until I get to the biographies. Ah, there he is. Mark Pearce. I scan his credits. I don't have to go far. Fourth line down: Maggie May. That's where I've seen him. At the Finborough Theatre.

Isn't that something.

I flip forward to the credits. Bit of a habit of mine. I like seeing who works on shows. And for the first time in a good long while, I see someone credited for the programmes. That's lovely. I like that. I'm certainly not mentioned as the producer of my programmes anywhere. Perhaps I should start sneaking my name in there... anyway, good on you Jon Bradfield. You've done a great job. Love the interview with the writer, Glenn Chandler. Very nice.

The bar's getting crowded again. Really crowded. Without taking a single set I seem to have been swept along, away from my little corner, into the middle of the room. And people are still pouring in from the theatre doors. I didn't think that small space could even hold this many people.

"Please take your seats in the main house for Fanny and Stella," says the man over the tannoy.

The main house.

The. Main. House.

That's why there are so many people.

That's why I got asked which programme I wanted.

Above the Stag isn't one theatre. It's two.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck, with bells on top.

We're skirting dangerously close to 300 theatres now. Finding a new studio that add to my list is really not what I need right now.

No time to think on that now, I'm going back in, ready for the trial of William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella.

But, hang on. There's someone crossing the stage. Someone very much not wearing Victorian dress. She's holding a wine glass and shuffling along.

The cast stop to stare at her in wonder.

"She's going through a stage," says Mark Pearce.

The audience groans in response and the woman throws up her arms in a shrugging apology as she heads towards her seat.

"Oy!" he rejoins. "That's the best joke in the whole show."

The pianist pulls a face.

Pearce points a finger at him. "Don't you start!"

It doesn't look like anyone's starting. They've all forgotten their lines.

Tobias Charles' Fanny taps Pearce on the chest. "I know where we are," he says. And after a few false starts, we're back up and running.

And oh, this is bliss. Silly and sordid, with all the sad bits delivered with high kicks and jazz hands, and Kieran Parrott's impossible Stella-pout.

Heaven.

I'm not even mad that I have to come back for that studio space now.

Read More

Almost like a Thursday

It seems to be my destiny to always book theatre trips during big sporting events.

I just got off the tube at Oval, and apparently there’s a thing going on.

Half the roads are closed, and the other half are crowded by people who don’t seem to be doing very much. But whatever they are doing, they are doing with purpose. There’s a lot of looking around and nodding with emphasis at one another.

Who knew London had so much sport?

I’m early, so I trot past the theatre to the other side of the road, and have a stroll around The Oval. Now, I may not know a lot about sport, but even I know there’s probably some cricket going on in there right now.

It’s a funny old place, isn’t it? The Oval, I mean. You can see all the backs of people’s heads of the crowds sitting in the stands down from the pavement. They look so venerable sitting up there, the backs of their necks reddening in the sun. I hope they brought some sunscreen with them.

There’s a general wail of noise coming from inside. It’s utterly intelligible. A wall of pure noise reacting to whatever is happening down on the field (ha! I knew that one. Not a pitch. A field). Over the tannoy I can make out the voice of a commentator. From what I can tell, he’s saying words, but I don’t understand a single one of them.

Nope. Sport isn’t for me. Words are hard enough as it is without adding this whole new language to the mix.

I’m heading back to where it’s safer.

Safer, anyway.

I loop my way back to the appropriately named Ovalhouse.

It’s very blue. Blue panes in the curved glass wall. Blue frames around the windows and the doors. An enormous blue sign tied to the side of the building, and sagging under the weight of its own massiveness.

Someone has been taking style tips from the Blue Elephant…

Inside, blue floors, and blue armchairs are added to the colour mix. There’s even a blue pillar stuck in the middle of this pleasingly oval-shaped foyer.

I may enjoy a touch of theme dressing, but I must bow before the master here. This is a level of commitment that I could never hope to replicate.

Doors lead off in all directions from this glass-walled oval, giving me intense hall-of-mirrors style dizziness. Thankfully, I don’t lose myself on my way to the box office window.

I complete the surname-in-exchange-for-ticket transaction, and then head over to the other side of the oval towards the cafe.

It’s nice in here. Quiet but not empty. There’s lots of rustic wooden tables giving off basement kitchen in Maida Vale vibes.

There’s a stage over on the far side, where I presume they have live music when it isn’t a quiet Wednesday night with a cricket match going on over the road.

I claim a table all to myself and have a look around.

There’s the door to the upstairs theatre, over by the bar. I won’t be visiting that one tonight, but I make a mental note of its location for my return.

I’m going to be in the downstairs theatre. The main space. At least I hope I am. Because I’m looking around and I can’t see it. Is it back in the mirror-maze like foyer? I don’t remember seeing a sign for it. Just the cafe, the box office, and the loos.

I could go back and check, but I’m comfy now. And besides, no one else looks like they’re in any rush to go anywhere. I might as well settle back and relax.

A few more people come in and take up the surrounding tables. Others head for the bar. But this is a hushed crowd. Or perhaps the better term would be: laid back. After spending last night having my pockets picked at the Aldwych, it feels nice just being sat here, by myself, and not being asked to buy something.

A young woman wearing a headset steps up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman,” she starts, and we all pull ourselves out of our daydreams to listen to her. “The doors are now open, over in the furthest corner of the bar.” She points the way into the next room, just beyond the bar.

Nice. I love it when an announcement comes with directions.

We stumble to our feet, gathering our things with the slow care of a hungover student attempting to clean their flat the morning after their first flat warming.

As one, we make our way into the next door. There’s a counter serving food on one side. And a door over in the far corner. Is that it? We all stop. The people at the head of our caravan turn around, eyes wide with confusion.

“Is that…?” one asks.

I’m thinking the same: is that?

There’s no sign. And no one there to check tickets.

But people are piling up behind us. There’s nowhere to go but forward. Onwards!

There’s a corridor through here. It doesn’t look very theatrey. If anything, it looks like the corridor outside a primary school classroom. I swear I see coats hung up on hooks as we press on.

Through another unlikely looking door, and there, thank goodness, is a ticket checker. He’s got one of those beeping machines to scan tickets so you know he’s legit.

That doesn’t explain the presence of the chalk board behind him.

“BRIAN. FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS,” it says, surrounded by tiny, fluttering hearts. The message, I’m sure, is connected to the show. The writing is too well done, the hearts too perfectly placed, to have been placed by anyone other than a theatrical. But the chalkboard? Does that always live here? I was kinda, but not really, joking about this corridor looking like a school earlier, but now I can’t shake the feeling that by day, this place plays host to a few hundred pre-teens intent on learning their ABCs.

I get my ticket beeped. Funny how I don’t mind the beeper when it’s a paper ticket on the receiving end of the beeping, and not my phone. Perhaps my reputation as a neo-luddite isn’t quite as deserved as everyone seems to think.

Into the auditorium, walking around the dark spaces formed by the bank of seats. The brick walls are painted black, but there are bright rectangles set amongst the gloom. I squint at them, trying to make them out. Lines of white, left by a thick brush, form the canvas to sharpie message of love. “YOUR LIFE MATTERS BRIAN,” one says. “KEEP SAFE BRIAN SEE YOU OX RIP XX,” reads another.

Around towards the stage and up the steps to find a seat. There are more messages to Brian up here. An outpouring of loving words, written on luggage labels and tried to the metal railings.

I want to stop and read them all, but I’m blocking the way. And besides, seats are unallocated and I better hurry up and pick one if I want to score my favoured place: third row, at the end.

The cast are already on stage. Moving in slow motion. Their faces twisted into grimaces of despair.

This is not going to be a happy evening.

I’m here for Custody. A new play about a young black man (I’m guessing the famous Brian here) who dies in police custody.

Well, I say play, but with all this slo-mo going on, I suspect there is going to be more than a little, what they call in the biz, “movement.” I might go as far as to say, “movement” tipping right the way into physical theatre.

Everyone in the audience keeps their heads down, struggling not to make eye contact with the performers and almost visibly flinching whenever they creep a peek and spot one of the cast looking their way.

Instead they focus on their flyers. Everyone has a flyer tonight.

That’s what people do when they’re aren’t any freesheets available. They grab a flyer.

See? It’s not just me that wants a memento. Any bit of print with the title of the show on it will be picked up by an audience member, given half a chance.

A man sitting in the row in front of me flicks at the side of his flyer, expecting it to open up to reveal more information inside.

I can’t blame him. As information goes, the flyer is a little lacking. Marketing blurb and dates of the run are all very nice, but when it comes to matters of who is actually standing on the stage in front of you looking like they’re just stepped on a very sharp thumbtack, they can’t compete with a freesheet.

It’s starting now.

Layered words as the cast form a Greek chorus of grief. Brian is dead. And no one is taking the blame.

Mother, brother, fiancé, sister. They tote around bags, clutched tight to their chests, hugged under arms, and slung over shoulders, a literal baggage that will only be laid to rest at the end.

Except, they don’t leave.

While the performers in You’re Dead, Mate left us stranded and alone, as we clapped in the dark, the cast of Custody stay with us, returning to vacate state. The lights come on. An usher crosses the stage in front of them to open the door. The cast are unseeing, as all they see is pain.

We look around at each other. Are we supposed to leave now?

I tentatively grab my jacket and slip it on.

I spot a few others doing the same.

Small groups get to their feet, unsure of themselves as they make their way to the exit.

No one wants to look at the cast as we file our way past them.

We leave them alone in their anguish.

It’s palpable. Hanging in the air. Heavy. Seeping off of the stage.

No wonder they move so slowly.

I would credit them, but… well, you already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Let’s do a thing. Let’s say it together. I would credit the cast but… 3…2…1… THERE ARE NO FUCKING FREESHEETS.

Ah. That was fun.

But seriously, there were no fucking freesheets.

“Feel free to write a message on your way out, if you'd like,” says the woman with the headset.

She indicates a small table in the foyer. “Please write a message to Brian,” says a small sign. There are luggage labels. And pens.

Someone is already jotting down her thoughts.

“What should I…?” she asks as she finishes.

“Just tie it up here,” comes the reply. There’s a string pinned up behind the table, waiting for the messages.

I move on. Words are hard.

The cricket must have finished now.

The tube is packed.

I head north, finally managing to get a seat around London Bridge.

Two men come and sit either side of me. They lean forward so as to continue their chat. Usually I would offer to switch. But I can’t move. I still feel the heaviness of the play pushing down on me.

“It's very busy,” says one, tacking in the still-busy carriage. “Something must be going on tonight. It’s almost Iike a Thursday.”

Almost.

Read More

What Do We Say to the God of Death?

“Where are you going tonight?”

Bless my coworkers. They do try and be supportive of my mission, even if they think it’s completely bonkers.

“Katzpace?” It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. I think that’s how you say it.

“Cat space?”

“Katz-pace,” I try again, feeling altogether less confident about my chosen pronunciation. Perhaps it really is Cat Space.

They give me a look. “Are you going to a cat cafe, Maxine?”

“I don’t think so…?”

I mean, who even knows anymore. I’ve been some weird-arse places lately. Perhaps Katzpace really is a cat cafe masquerading as a theatre. I sure won’t be the one to complain if that’s true.

I check the website.

No mention of cats. Or even a cat.

They do have a tagline though. “London’s coolest theatre.”

Well. That’s something. I hope they’re being literal because it is very, very warm today. And I don’t do well in the heat.

And it’s not even sunny. Just muggy and disgusting. On my way south of the river I stop on Blackfriars Bridge to try and grab a blast of that cool air coming off the river.

The breeze remains resolutely still. Bastard.

Oh well. I make my way down onto Southwark Street, passing The Bunker and the Menier. Borough Market is looming just ahead. It should be around here somewhere. I carry on, eyeing up all the buildings on the other side of the road. Nope. Nope. That’s not it. Pub. Pub. Pub. Nope. Not that either. That’s a bank.

I think I’m gone too far.

I cross the road and double back.

The proximity doesn’t help. My eyesight surely can’t be this bad.

Just as I’m reaching into my bag to grab my glasses, I spot something. A crowd of young people gathered around a doorway. They look like the sort of people who might attend London’s coolest theatre.

They’re really pushing that tagline hard. It’s even written on the A-frame sign positioned out on the pavement, and stencilled onto the doors.

I’m beginning to get a bit worried.

Katzpace may well be London coolest theatre. But I am not London’s coolest theatre-goer. I barely scrape the top five.

The sign above the door is for Ketzenjammers. A bierkeller, apparently. I don’t know what a bierkeller is, but I’m guessing it has something to do with beers and cellars.

The stairs inside lead down. The walls are covered in a mural featuring beer steins in a battle with what looks like wine bottles. Ah yes, the great Wine War of 1262.

At the bottom of the stairs, I have a chose. Left or right. Both directions look equally deserted. Katzpace is supposed to a basement theatre, but we’re already below street level.

I pick a direction at random, and turn left.

More empty corridors. More turns. This time I go right.

There’s a door here. I go through.

Tables. And benches.

All empty.

Is this what a bierkeller is? Twisting corridors and empty rooms?

There’s another staircase. Very industrial looking and metal. It has a sign stuck right in the middle.

You. I've got you. Let's a programme. The bars open if you'd like to get a drink and take it in.

“Youre Dead, Mate. DOWNSTAIRS. BOX OFFICE & BAR @ 7pm. SHOW @ 7.:30pm.”

Thank goodness. It looks like I’m going the right way.

Expect, there’s another sign. A content warning one. You know the type of thing: this production contains nudity, forced religious indoctrination, and faeries offering forbidden food. That kind of thing. Except this one is followed up by the warning that readmittance is not allowed if you need to leave the theatre. After the gentle care taken at Bernie Grant to both warn and protect their audiences, this seems a little mercenary. We’re going to be throwing all of the words around, and you better be strong enough to handle it, because there’s no chance of a time-out here.

Further down I think I’ve found it. The bierkeller. Long curved ceilings mold themselves around the long rows of tables below. Lone theatre-goers sit at tables, not talking to each other.

There’s a table right at the base of the stairs. It’s after 7pm. This must be the promised box office. I wait awkwardly on the bottom step until the queue has cleared.

Eventually, one of the three young people sitting behind the desk looks up.

I give my surname.

She finds my name on the list and gives it a tick. “Yup. I’ve got you. Here’s a progamme,” she says, handing me a freesheet. “The bar is open if you’d like to get a drink and take it in.”

Getting a drink in a bierkeller is probably the thing to do. But it’s Monday. And I’m alone. And, well, I don’t want a beer.

I take myself and my freesheet to an empty table.

The freesheets may not be programmes, but they are pretty swish all the same. Decent paperstock. Nice full page print of the poster image. Printed in colour. Run off on a photocopier, but I’m not judging on that.

And could have done with a proofread. Katzpace is misspelt in the thanks (Katzspace), which doesn’t seem all that grateful. But you know, typos happen. As literally every post on my blog will testify.

Year 3000 is blasting over the sound system. It what seems to be an attempt to inject atmosphere in this vast, empty space.

Strangely empty, now that I come to think of it.

I look around. The lone theatre-goers seem to have disappeared. Instead, there’s now a queue over on the side of the room. From behind the line of people, a neon sign glows. “Katzpace Theatre.”

Looks like we’re going in.

I hurry after them, trying to stuff the freesheet into my bag while also attempting to get said bag over my shoulder.

The neon sign points the way to a pair of low doors. Tall people need not apply.

It’s dark in here. Really dark. The only light seems to be coming from a small lamp on stage.

I peer through the gloom, trying to work out the best place to sit.

There are three banks of seats.

The central tier is on a rake. That looks like the best option, but it’s full already.

The side options are empty. Three rows. No rake.

I take a chance and go for the second row, hoping all the tall people are kept at bay by the low hanging door frame.

A second later, someone sits in front of me.

She’s not even that tall, but I can’t see a damn thing.

I scoot along right to the edge of the bench, where I find a slither of a view between a pillar and the lady’s head.

That’ll have to do.

Others are not so content with their lots.

“We don’t want to spend an entire fucking hour in bad seats,” says a bloke sitting in the row behind me.

They get up and start testing out different locations.

They’re not the only ones.

People pop up and down in different rows, clambering into spare seats and darting back out again as they try to negotiate themselves the best possible view in a giant game of musical chairs.

And they’re all so young.

I don’t think I’ve even been in an audience where the average age is this close to twenty.

In three weeks I’ll be turning thirty-three. Thirty-fucking-three. The same age that our lord and saviour, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, had Fleabag 2 and Killing Eve on our tellie-screens. Oh, and Jesus was crucified. But no one cares about that anymore.

And it’s fine. Totally fine. Like, I’ve been Googling what people have accomplished by the age of thirty-three. But you know, whatever. We all go at our own pace. Some people write era-defining scripts or start religions that span millennia, and other people go to watch a lot of theatre and write silly blog posts about it. It’s all good.

I mean, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women at thirty-three, laying the foundation for feminism, and I have a This is What a Feminist Looks Like t-shirt that I sometimes sleep in. So, I’m doing my bit to the continuing efforts to crush the patriarchy. Sort of.

And Amelia Earheart flew the Atlantic, which is something I’ve yet to accomplish even with the benefit of easyjet.

Samuel Smiles gave a speech that was to become the foundation to his book, Self-Help. A book which went on to sell 20,000 copies in its first year, and is still in print 165 years later. And I’ve… been bested by my own ancestor.

But it’s fine.

All. Fine.

It could be worse. Alexander the Great was already dead by my age. And yet still managed to conquer the known world.

I can’t even conquer the known theatre-world.

Turns out though, I’m at the perfect play. Cos our hero is having a similarly angst-filled evening.

But even worse, because like Alexander the Great, he’s dead.

Twenty-three years old (because of course he is) and he’s having a crisis. Unable to go back, and not ready to move on, he’s having to be comforted by the only entity available - Death himself.

Not exactly who I’d want as a councillor, if I’m honest, but deaders can’t be choosers. And he’s met everyone. Literally everyone. Even Alexander the Great. I suppose if anyone has any insight into the human condition, it’s him.

It’s a brave writer who takes on that character. I’m not sure I would have had the guts in a post-Terry Pratchett world. But it’s an even braver writer who decides he also wants to play the part. I mean, good on you, Teddy Morris.

The young people seem to be enjoying it too. They’re laughing themselves sick. The kind of hard, explosive laugh that you only get from audiences that are mates of the people on stage. The kind of laugh that’s filled with the shock and surprise of finding out that your weirdo friend is actually pretty talented.

Death and his patient leave the stage and we’re plunged into darkness.

“Are they coming out?” someone asks as the applause stretches out into eternity.

Turns out they’re not.

They’ve moved on.

And we’re left to make the most of our lives.

Read More

The Secret Language of Flowers


With cautious glances at one another, we take up places around the edge. Balancing on knees, or curling around our legs.

A few people decide that sitting on the floor is more than they signed up for, and head for the benches by the wall instead.

Angelique keeps on talking. The party isn’t going so well. She’s spotted her boyfriend with another girl, and his dealer, the one she really doesn’t like, is there.

And… oh god. Her voice sinks as she tells us what happens next. I clutch tight at my knees, twisting around to follow her as she moves around us, wanting to look away but at the same time not being able to take my eyes off her.

There’s a crash.

As one, our heads snap towards the window behind Dennis-Edwards.

Another crash.

A young girl peeks through the blackout curtains. It’s the boys with their football.

The girl’s mother gives her a look and the curtain is dropped back into place.

But the lure of the teenage boys and their football is too much for her, and soon she is peeling open the edge of the curtain once more to look outside.

Angelique moves around the space. She wants to show us the vase of blue flowers she has put in her new home.

They're basic but bright, she says. But perhaps more than that, they embody new beginnings, and hope. Of sun-filled days. Of her own shop. Her own life. Away from those who see her as a resource and not a person.

Outside, it’s still swelteringly hot. The party next door is still going. The music still blasting.

But the streets are empty. Deserted. I walk towards the tube station, swinging my jacket from my arm.

Everything smells of heat and tarmac and fast food.

Despite the pain, I miss Angelique’s world. Her lack of nonsense. Her drive. And the lush freshness of her flowers.

I should really go buy some.

Maybe for my birthday. That’s coming up in three weeks. Three weeks and one day. Not that I’m dreading it or anything.

Still, flowers would help. Peonies, I think. They’re my favourite. I wonder what they mean. Angelique would know.

Read More

Attack of the Vapours

I’m taking you somewhere exciting today. Somewhere I’m fairly confident that you haven’t been before. I know I certainly haven’t.

It’s just down here. On The Cut.

No, not The Old Vic. Carry on, keep on going. Yeah, yeah, not the Young one either. We’re crossing the road here.

Yup. That’s it. Over there. Or at least, I think it is. I have to admit that I’ve marched up and down this street a thousand times as I make my way to one theatre or another (the aforementioned Vics, young and old, the Union further down, and the neighbour-theatres of the Menier and the Bunker further still, not forgetting the Vaults and and Network over on the other end) and I have never, not once, noticed this place.

I mean, sure. I could see there was a bookshop here. A theatre bookshop even. But I had no idea that there was a theatre lurking within.

I hope you didn’t either, or I’m going to feel rather stupid showing you this.

I stop outside, just to double check that I have, in fact, got the right place. I’m looking for the Calder Bookshop Theatre and the big shop sign says THE BOOKSHOP THEATRE. Ah, close enough. I go in.

There’s a wooden desk over on the right. I’m guessing that’s the box office for the evening. There’s a laptop sat on top, and that’s usually a sign of box officeiness in the lack of… well, an actual sign.

There’s a group of woman standing in front of it. They are all talking busily. Are they in the queue, I can’t tell.

A second later, the man behind the desk spots me.

“Can we move over?” he asks the ladies. They shuffle half a pace to the left and start chatting again.

I make full use of this small concession of theirs and squeeze my way over to the desk.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say. “I emailed a few days ago?”

Ah, yes. The email.

Here’s the thing. The Calder Bookshop Theatre doesn’t have online booking. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such a thing on this marathon. But it’s the first time that I’ve actually attempted to negotiate such a system. I’ve still yet to tackle Baron’s Court and their utter lack of a presence on the old interwebs. Thankfully, the Calder does have a website. And a note directing you to either call or email them if you are after some ticket action in your life.

Well, there was no way I was calling. I haven’t willingly picked up the phone since 1989, and even then it was the Fisher Price variety and I was lured in by the grinning face printed below the rotary dial. So email I did. A few days ago. Basically just asking how one goes about this whole process, as I have never negotiated a ticket purchase via email before. Turns out it’s easy. And someone emailed back that evening saying that a ticket had been reserved for me and I could pay on the door when I arrived.

Brill.

The man behind the desk taps away at his laptop. “Ah yes! Paying full price?”

Yes. I mean… I guess…

I handed over the cash.

“How much are these?” I ask, indicating a pile of handsome looking programmes on the desk.

“Please take one! They’re free!”

I perk right up. The only thing better than a programme is a free programme.

There’s no need for tickets. So I’m left to wander the shop.

Wander is perhaps too strong a word. Shuffle would be the more accurate descriptor. It’s rather busy in here. Turns out the Caldor is not quite the secret I thought it was. Plenty of folks have managed to not only hear about this place, but also negotiate the tricksy ticket buying procedure.

Who are these people? And how did they get here?”

Calls of “how very nice to see you!” ring around the shop, growing ever more high-pitched.

“Have your performed here?”

“No. Gosh no. Oh, wait… have I?”

“I’ve just finished on the poetry festival.”

“… the actors’ workshop.”

“… the writers’ retreat.”

They’re all bloody theatre people.

It always makes me cringe a bit when the entire audience is composed of people who make theatre. It feels so insular. So self-congratulatory. Like a private members’ club. A bit… “this is a local theatre, for local people; there’s nothing for you here,” if you get my meaning.

When I’m in crowds like this, it does make me question this whole theatre thing. If the only people coming to your show are other theatre people, then really, what are we all doing here? Are we really such an isolated industry? Creating shows for our friends? Our in-group? Our tribe?

Just the thought of that being the case makes me feel all squicky.

And even worse, I’m a bloody theatre person too. So, I’m just perpetuating the problem by being here.

I go off to the far corner and have a look at the books. Books are good. Books are quiet.

There’s a curtain back here. That must be the entrance to the theatre.

A woman emerges.

“It’ll be about three minutes until we let people in,” she says to the nearest person. “We’re waiting for people to arrive.”

I commented on this holding of the curtain for latecomers back in my Blue Elephant post, and the artistic director ended up tweeting me to explain it. But no justification is necessary. I think this is a great and wonderful thing for small theatres to do. Latecomers cause so much more havoc in small spaces, it’s far better for everyone involved to wait a few minutes. And besides, if your audience really is drawn from such a small community, you might as well do your damndest to serve it.

She disappears back behind the curtain, only to pop out a few minutes later. This time holding a torch.

“Are you happy to wait?” she asks the nearest person. “I just have to pop to Sainsbury’s to get some batteries for the actors that they can see.”

Well, it would be churlish to say no now, wouldn’t it?

She leaves the torch on top of a convenient bookshelf and leaves. Supposedly to get batteries.

I spend my time looking at the programme. “Victorian Woman in Bed,” it says in a curly script on the front cover.

I look at it very hard, so as not to get distracted by the books. You see, I have a problem when it comes to books. It’s not that I don’t like books. Quite the opposite really. I’ve got shelves and shelves of the damn things at home. Double stacked. With piles of them on the floor. On the window ledges. On my pillow. In the bathroom. The kitchen. On the stairs. You think I have a problem with programmes? You wait until I show you how many copies of Rivers of London I own (Three. People keep on buying it for me. It’s a great book. But please, I don’t need anymore).

I’m not going to pretend that it’s not an uncommon problem. I’m not one of those twats on Twitter that likes to pretend they’re quirky just because they have a pile of unread books waiting on their bedside table. There’s even a Japanese word for it: tsundoku. And if there’s anything to kill the eccentricity of a trait, it’s having its own special word to describe it.

And actually… I read my fucking books. So, there.

The battery-buyer returns. Avec batteries.

I get jostled further into my corner as she retrieves the torch and starts slotting them in.

“Right,” she says, with the air of a job done. “I’ll go get the actors ready.”

They must have been prepped and ready to go, because the curtain is drawn back and we’re going in.

Gosh, it’s tiny in here. Really small, and rather cute.

The walls are bare brick, and the seating is upholstered in plum coloured velvet.

There’s only four rows. With a slim aisle down the middle.

I head to what is now officially my favourite seat: third row, right on the end.

The actors are already on stage. All dressed in their finest Victorian nightwear. One of them is even in bed.

Has there ever been a play more perfectly designed to attract me? Victorian women. In bed. I mean, fucking hell. That’s my soul, my dream, my aesthetic (as the kids say) in one simple sentence. It’s what I yearn to be.

But what kind of Victorian woman in bed am I? That’s the question.

I’m glad I’m going to get four examples tonight to help me choose.

First up is Charlotte Brontë. Now obviously I’m a huge Brontë fan. Charlotte especially. Jane Eyre is my gal. Whenever I’m feeling poor, obscure, plain and little, it’s Ms Eyre I turn to for a dose of no-nonsense snappy comebacks. Although when I get to that quote, I have to stop, because I am actually soulless and heartless.

Charlotte’s taking-to-her-bed involves pregnancy. And a lot of throwing up. And a lack of clean nightclothes.

Not sure I’m really up for any of that.

My fantasies are more of the frilly-nightgown variety. Vomit need not apply.

Moving on. And it’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poetess (a word I am determined to bring back, alongside aviatrix. Now, usually I hate gendered job titles, but these ones are so damn great I think they should be brought back with such enthusiasm and force, they take over and dominate to become gender neutral). She has squirreled under her blankets and she’s absolutely determined not to come out. Her bed is her sanctuary. Her defence against the world. I can get behind this. Except staying in bed means spending the rest of her life with a nosy sister, and an overbearing father. Whereas getting up means being whisked away to Italy by a handsome man.

Hmm. Not sure about this one. Let’s circle back to it when we see what else is on offer.

Next up: Emma Hardy. Wife of Thomas Hardy. Now she has some faboulous hats. An I do enjoy a hat. And she’s a writer. This one has definite potential. Except there’s the whole Thomas issue. And the being unappreciated, unpublished, and unhappy.

Maybe not.

Thankfully we still have one left.

And it’s the lady with the lamp, the ministering angel, the saviour of Scutari: Florence Nightingale. I do like Florence Nightingale. She invented the pie chart, you know. And I love a pie chart.

I think we might be onto a winner here.

Now, I’m not good at that whole, you know, caring thing. So being a nurse is out. But we’re past that by this point. Florence is at home. In bed. And I am totally on board. She’s dictating letters. Ordering men about. And generally being the boss from the blankets. There are even cats keeping her toes warm. And you know how much I adore cats.

Yes. When I take to my bed, I shall be doing it in true Florence style. Bonnet and all.

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Lost in Space

Is Streatham Space Project the newest venue on my marathon thus far? I think Streatham Space Project is the newest venue on my marathon thus far. Not even a year old, it opened in June last year. I doubt they’ve even taken the plastic wrap off yet.

And, yup. It is very shiny. Very shiny. Golden even. The walls are positively gleaming in the evening sun. I don’t want to insult the people of Streatham by saying that it looks like a little gleaming nugget within a pan full of gritty river water, but… I’m just going to leave that sentence hanging there.

There’s a little laminated sign stuck on the sliding glass doors. “We are… OPEN to the public. C’mon in!” it says. I’d love to know what incident prompted the creation of this sign (probably lots of locals sticking their head around the door and asking if the place is open to the public, and can they come in) but as someone with the anxiety, who even five months into her theatre marathon, still gets a little nervous going into new places, I really appreciate it.

For all the millions the Opera House has spent on their Open Up project, a simple sign on the door can do just as well.

I follow the directions and go inside.

It’s nice in here. Less of the shiny and more of the earthy, as branches circle the ceiling lamps, and photographs of trees crowd the walls. Signage is big and clear and in caps. STAGE one way. BAR and TICKETS the other.

Now, that’s a question. Tickets. What am I needing to do on that? I have an e-ticket. But one thing I’ve learnt on this marathon is the stuff you get sent by theatres aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on. E-tickets are confirmation emails, confirmation emails get you admission passes, admission passes are stickers, and stickers are brill. Nothing means anything, and it is always best to ask.

The box office and bar take up the back wall of the cafe space. I head over and join the queue. There doesn’t seem to be any differentiation between the two spaces, as the two blokes behind the bar jump from one side to the other, box office to bar, and back again, as each person in the queue asks for different things. Tickets or drinks, or some tasty combination of the two.

It’s my turn.

“Do I need to pick up a ticket?” I ask. “Or is it just e-tickets?”

“Just e-tickets. We’re completely paperless here,” says one of the blokes behind the bar.

“Great.” I mean, not great. I fucking hate this paperless trend. It’s the red flag of a dying civilization. The end of a golden age of theatre that stretches back centuries. A victory of bean-counters over memory-makers. But, still. Great. At least I know the situation.

Although… completely paperless? Oh dear. That doesn’t bode well for potential freesheet action.

Oh well. I’m not going to think about that.

Instead I step into a side room. It looks to be a gallery and there’s some pretty amazing photos of trees by Mark Welland on the walls. The kind of photos I wouldn’t mind owning, and certanly don’t mind taking a few minutes to look at and ponder over. I do like a tree.

I get distracted by a bing-bong. An actual bing-bong. The sort of bing-bong that would open an episode of Hi-de-Hi! on a Saturday morning.

“Welcome to Streatham Space Project,” the voice on the tannoy says. “Just to let you know that show tonight, Freeman, will start at 8 o’clock, and the doors will open at 7.45. So you have plenty of time to queue at the bar. If you could make your way to the Stage at 7.45 that’ll be great.”

Oh. See, now. I was sure the start time was at 7.45. I was rather banking on it, as, let me remind you, we’re in Streatham. And that’s a long way from Finchley. Which is where I live, and more importantly, sleep. Those fifteen minutes could well be the difference between me just having a cheeky late night, and being so tired that I want to die.

I double check the website. Yup, start time 7.45. No mention of doors. So either the Space Project is still working on out some issues in their communications, or the performance is running behind.

Bing-bong!

“The house will be opening in a few minutes for Freeman. Please have your names or tickets ready to be ticked off the list. Please make your way to the auditorium.”

My quiet corner next to the fire safety equipment is soon overrun with people flapping around A4 pieces of paper that they’ve printed-at-home their print-at-home tickets (paperless my arse).

“Is this the queue?” someone asks. We all shrug in response. It is now, I guess.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” says one of the blokes from the bar. He squeezes through us, holding a laptop in his arms. “Excuse me.”

He makes it through to the other side and with the laptop balanced in the crock of his arm, beams at us all, ready to take names and check the not-so-paperless tickets.

Well, here I am, the paper-whore with only my name poised and ready to give at the door.

“Smiles?”

“Err…”

“It’s S-M-I-L-E-S.”

“S-M-I…” he types up with one finger, the laptop wobbling on his arm with every key-press. “Maxine?”

That’s the one!

I go in.

I’m running out of words to describe black box theatres. They’re black. They’re shaped like a box. There’s a single bank of raked seating. The stage is at floor level. I’ve been to at least a hundred of these this year. Probably. I haven’t actually counted.

The stage is actually surprisingly small given the amount of seat there are in here. It feels a little out of proportion. A little squashed. Like a pug’s snout. Still cute, but makes you wonder about the conduct of the people who created them.

I plonk myself down at the end of the third row. That seems to be my go-to seat in unreserved theatres at the moment. Just far enough away from the stage so that you don’t feel exposed. But closed enough that it still feelings incredibly intimate.

Someone comes to sit next to me, and the intimacy increased by an alarming factor. He manspreads out his knees, bumping and jostling my own knees out of the way. Then, room cleared, he pumps his legs together, as if working away on an invisible Thighmaster.

The lights dim and the leg exercises finish. Thank goodness.

Thirty seconds later, he’s checking his watch. He sighs. Deep and shuddering.

Something tells me this is going to be a long evening for the both of us.

He sighs through the performers creeping around after one another to Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King and shouts of “Tory scum!”

He sighs as the names of black people who have been killed by police officers are projected up the screen. So many names they overlap and merge into one another, forming a solid wall of white.

He sighs through the Equus-style horse made up of dancers and ridden around the stage. The horse ride that would lead to William Freeman be imprisoned, and beaten brutally, for five years.

He sighs through the shadow puppet failed-assassination of Edward Drummond. The failed assassination that would lead to the M’Naughten rules.

He sighs as Sarah Reed undergoes the most harrowing assault scene I’ve ever seen on stage.

He sighs through the lindy hop. Through the gospel singing. Through court testimony and horrific murders.

He sighs. He sighs. He sighs.

He sighs as we laugh. He sighs as we cry.

He sighs through it all.

I’ve never felt so sorry for someone in my entire life.

An hour later, we’re out.

“More info on the show if you’re interested!” says a front of houser, standing by the exit and handing out leaflets.

I am very much interested. I take one.

Outside, I stop to have a look at it. It’s full of information about mental health. Signs, symptoms, courses of action. All good stuff. And nicely printed too. But not a single thing about the show. No cast. No creatives. I write this post ignorant of the names of any of the performers who sang and danced and wretched out hours for a full sixty minutes.

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Behind Closed Doors

It’s bank holiday Monday and having a roast in a fancy pub sounds pretty swell right about now. But unfortunately I’m not here for food. I’ve got to go watch some theatre.

There’s another chalk sign above I door that's just beyond the bar. THEATRE it says, in all caps with an arrow pointing up.

The door itself has its own sign. In gold. THROUGH TO THE GENTS. Gotta love a venue that sorts the latrines with the mise en scène.

Anyway, I go through. Not to the gents, but up the stairs. There are lots of frames gracing the stairs on the way up, which in any lesser pub-theatre would be show posters from all their previous productions. But the Drayton Arms doesn’t stoop to such vulgar exploits, and instead have old maps, and a portrait of Ellen Terry advertising Allen & Ginter’s cigarettes, and what looks like a Toulouse Lautrec print

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Behind the Pink Elephant

I have two thoughts as I make my way down to the Blue Elephant Theatre. Firstly, that it was a lot further south than I had anticipated. A lot further south. I thought it was close to Elephant & Castle tube, but I passed that ten minutes back and I’m still going. The other is that it after all this walking, it better bloody be blue. I’m willing to accept that my fantasies of it being shaped like an actual elephant may not come to pass, but a lack of blueness is will be unbearable.

“Watch it,” shouts a cyclist as he screams past me on the pavement.

Fucking hell. The cyclists of south London are intense. Only been here half an hour and that’s the third one who seems intent on murdering me.

I pick my way across the road carefully, checking both ways at least three times.

South London be dangerous, y’all.

Can’t even stroll down a pavement without… wait. Where am I?

The shops and bustling high street have fallen away behind me. I’m alone. Standing in what looks to be very residential area. Is there really a theatre here?

I check my phone. According to the theatre’s website, it should be just around this corner - opposite the large block of flats.

I turn the corner, feeling more than a little doubtful about the whole thing. Not being in the shape of an elephant was one thing. Not existing at all was quite another. I’d go as far as to say that I’d be quite upset if, after walking all the way from Islington, the Blue Elephant turned out to be, well, a pink elephant.

Thankfully, it’s not a drunken hallucination, because there it is, and… while not completely blue, there are definitely some blue elements. Doors and shutters and the swinging sign are all painted a very lickable shade of azure blue. And even better, the sign has the model of an elephant in it.

A family walk past, the little girl bouncing along in a Disney-print onesie.

“The theatre’s open today!" she shouts, excitedly pointing towards the building.

Her mum doesn’t seem impressed. They are running late. There is no time for possibly-non-existent theatres.

I’m running late too. I should go pick up my ticket.

It’s even bluer inside. Doors in that tasty azure shade are everywhere, surrounded by a more tasteful navy blue.

A (blue) sign points the way to the box office. Left, and up the stairs.

Not that I can go up them. There’s a couple of young ladies picking up ticket, and the three of us are taking up what little room there is on the few steps that separate the entrance from the landing that is serving as the box office.

They have one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall windows, but the space looks so small that the person serving is hanging out in the doorway, leaning into the office and the landing and back again, without moving his feet, as he processes the two woman.

By the sounds of it, they’re getting free tickets. Some sort of initiative for locals. Which I would be totally in favour of if it were not for the fact that my local theatre doesn’t seem to do these things.

Oh well.

Finally, it’s my turn.

“The surname is Smiles,” I say.

“Smiles! I remember the name ‘Smiles’,” he says, beaming. I laugh. I’m used to the reaction my name gets, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it every time it happens.

His finger runs down the list. “Ah, Max. Of course.”

Of course.

He hands me an admission pass. Laminated and a bit worn looking, but it’s large, and blue, and most importantly, it has an elephant on it.

“And your programme,” he says, handing me what is very clearly a freesheet. “The bar is upstairs.”

Up the stairs I find more blue doors. These ones with stickers of elephants on them. A pink elephant on the left. And a blue elephant on the left. The blue elephant has a moustache and a bowtie. The pink elephant has a flower tucked behind its ear. A presume this display gender-normative elephant-accessories is meant to indicate loos lurking on the other side of the doors.

I decide not to investigate further.

More stairs. And there’s the bar. It a nice room. Packed full of little tables covered in mismatched table-clothes. There’s a table over by the far side, and low stools around the perimeter. It’s saved from looking cramped by the high vaulted ceiling. The angled beams are painted deep navy blue.

And there are elephants. They’re hiding all over the place. One behind the bar. Another hanging from one of the beams.

I’m in serious danger of finding myself playing a game of hunt-the-elephant, so I go to sit down, picking a table covering in a sparkly tablecloth. I’m in that kind of mood.

The bar begins to fill up.

Everyone seems to know everyone else. I begin to wonder if I’m the only person here who actually bought her way in.

A woman walks over to the table behind me. “We’re starting a little bit late,” she says to them. “There are still, like, seven people not here. I don’t know who they are, but they’re on the list.”

Yeah, that’s the problem with free tickets. It’s very easy not to turn up when you’ve got one. It takes a financial commitment not to succumb to the lure of Netflix.

It’s well past eight now. I’m starting to get a little worried about the length of my journey home.

“Welcome to the Blue Elephant for the first night of Justice, taking place in the theatre downstairs,” says a woman, who has clearly also got home-time on the brain and wants to get this show rolling. She runs through a serious of warning: haze, depictions of sexual violence. “And, errr, one thing I’ve forgotten.” She pauses, trying to remember the last thing on the list.

“Nah,” calls out someone else. “That’s about it.” She turns to everyone else in the bar. “Sorry if there was something else.”

Everyone whoops and staggers to their feet. Ah. Not locals then. But mates of the cast. I’m sure of it. No one is that enthusiastic about theatre unless they know someone involved. Not even when the tickets are free.

But they are not making for the stairs. They have one more thing to get sorted before they go into the auditorium.

As one, they head towards the bar.

Definitely friends of the cast.

Back down the stairs. Past the pink vs blue loos. Past the boxy corner office. Past the entrance. And on to the theatre.

“Amazing,” says the guy from the box office, who is now on ticket checking duty. He takes my admission pass and I go in.

There’s a single bank of seating. Raked. The stage is at floor level. It’s covered in chairs. Both lined up down the sides in a way that sets my teeth on edge (actors sitting on the side of the stage in scenes that are not their own is a trope that went from being pretentious to hackneyed decades ago), but also piled up on the floor, and hanging from the rig. And there, along the back wall, is a tower of broken chairs, with looks like it has more than a passing nod towards the Iron Throne.

We’re not in Westeros anymore, Dumbo.

I ignore the chairs. I’m much more interested in the cushions.

Small. Fluffy. And lined up on the benches.

It looks like I’m in for a comfy evening.

Or a very uncomfy one. Depending on what they are covering up.

I squeeze myself down to the end of a row, so that I can lean against the metal bars on the end.

Now that I’ve sat down I can see that the rake isn’t all that great, and I am super pleased that no one is sitting directly in front of me.

As soon as I have that thought, the theatre gods intervene. The guy from the box office comes in. He looks around for a spare seat before deciding to ease himself down the full length of a row, and sit directly in front of me.

Now, I’m sure he had his reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years of theatre going, in my 120+ theatre trips this year alone, in thousands of shows, seen a front of houser sit anywhere that didn’t have easy access to the aisle.

And usually the one closest to the exit.

You know, to facilitate matters in the event of an evacuation, or, I don’t know, help an audience-member if they need help finding the pink loos.

He hoikes his elbow onto the back of the bench, and settles in.

I just pray there isn’t a fire.

The play is about knife crime. Or possibly the outrage of stop-and-search. Inequality in education. The ineffectiveness of the police. Class, maybe. Race, definitely.

The company is young. Very young. And they are trying super hard.

It’s rather sweet.

And wow, I’m super patronising.

Oh well. I’m sure they’ll go far as long as they ignore the bitter old trolls, like me.

At the curtain call, one of the cast members steps forward. They are raising money for Steel Warriors, a charity that melts down knives and builds playgrounds. They are asking for any spare change to be dropped in buckets as we leave.

Another cast member steps forward. “I’m supposed to talk about Wooden Arrow now,” he says, referring to their plays producers and looking very embarrassed about it.

Half the audience explode into laughter. No doubt the half that make up Wooden Arrow.

He goes through a short spiel, and looks very relieved when he reaches the end of it.

It time to go.

It’s still light outside. And warm. The perfect evening. Which I will spend trapped underground as I take the long journey home.

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