I need me a Scarecrow

Can you believe that this is my first visit to the Kiln Theatre? And I'm not talking since the rebrand either. I ain't never been to the Tricycle neither. Shocking. I know. Even I'm surprised. Or I was until I got on the train to get here. Honestly, people who battle the overground in the pursuit of theatre are gawddamned heroes, they really are. Like, I know I complain a lot about trains. But seriously, they are awful and I want no part of them. Once this marathon is over, I'm never going anywhere that isn't within a ten-minute walking distance of a tube station.

processed_MVIMG_20191023_190658.jpg

Anyway, I'm here. And there it is, the Kiln. Sitting right there, right on the high street. All cosy and tucked in between a cafe offering wood oven pizzas and the Daniel Day Lewis family's pharmacy, giving off some serious Tara Arts vibes.

Inside there's some sort of cafe or bar or something like that. I don't hang around to find out. My attention is entirely taken uo by the neon sign glowing at the end of a long corridor. A red neon sign glowing at the end of a very long, dark, corridor. A red neon sign saying "Kiln" glowing at the end of a very long, dark, brick corridor.

It's hella creepy.

I don't want to get all, you know, but walking along a very long, dark, brick corridor, towards a red light advertising itself as an oven... I mean, it feels a bit holocausty. Just saying.

processed_IMG_20191023_190822.jpg

Dark, red-lit corridors are already hitting those horror movie tropes. We don't need to be adding kilns to the mix.

I make it down the corridor though, and emerge into a buzzing... again, cafe or bar or possibly restaurant, I can't tell.

A sign points the way towards the box office and I follow it into a brightly lit space. All white walls and tiled floors, and relief on my part.

I stand around, marvelling at the TARDIS-like architecture going on around me.

This place is unexpectedly massive.

It's not like Tara Arts at all. That whole high street frontage is a total scam. This isn't some diddy local fringe venue. This place is glossy as shiz. This is a venue that has done some serious deals with the devil. Which explains the horror hallway.

I suppose I better pick up my tickets.

processed_IMG_20191023_190904.jpg

It's a great big box office. Long counter. With bollards to keep the queue in check. Not that there is one right now.

Terrified that I would be late, I'm in fact here far too early. Damn those trains for running on time.

"The surname's Smiles?" I tell the first box officer I reach. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

"Great!" he says, making a grab for the ticket box. "Can I take your first name too please?"

He absolutely can.

"That's one," he says, handing it over.

Right. Now what?

The cafe or bar or quite possibly restaurant, looks to be more on the restaurant side of the spectrum. No plopping oneself down at a table and taking up space without ordering. Over by the box office there are great big booths, large enough for ten to squeeze around the tables. Each of them seating a single person.

I don't really fancy sharing right now.

Over on the opposite side, there's a counter with high chairs. That looks pretty popular too. I'm not feeling it though. My short legs don't love sitting in high chairs. I like to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

But over there looks like a quite corner for me to stand in.

I hang back, waiting for someone to pass in front of me.

He stops, and glances over. "Box office is just that way," he says.

"Oh, I've got that sorted," I say with a wave of my hand which I hope suggests a casual appreciation for his concern.

Over by the bar, there's a clicking of switches and the lights go down.

We are clearly now in evening mode. Mood-lighting is a-go.

I check the time. Still a bit early to go in.

I should go buy a programme or something.

I look around. While there are waiters buzzing around everywhere, I can't see staff of the front of house-variety.

I go back to the neon sign, and find the entrance to the theatre.

Ah. There's a front of houser. She doesn't have programmes though. Huh. Maybe they just don't do them. Bit at odds with the schmancy vibe they've got going on here, but perhaps it's a statement about kilns, and paper burning, and I don't know... I don't pretend to understand what is going on anymore.

I show her my ticket.

As she sets about ripping it to shreds, I look down and notice something.

Down on the floor, propped up and balanced against the wall, are booklets with the When the Crows Visit artwork on their covers.

"Do you have programmes?" I ask doubtfully.

"I do!" she says, reaching down to grab one, "That's four pounds."

As we settle the business of me handing over a fiver and her finding my change, she goes over the rules. "Just to let you know, there's no readmission once the performance has started, but there is a twenty-minute interal." She pauses. "And no photography is allowed," she says, clearly clocking my sort.

Duly warned, I go inside.

Turns out I'm sitting in the back row, which is no bad thing, because it's a neat little theatre in here. One block of lightly raked seats, lined either side by narrow slips, and a balcony running around the top.

The stage is wide, and the set massive. Huge doors are separated by wide pillars.

All very nice. I make use of the near-empty auditorium to take some forbidden photos. A bell rings outside, and the rows begin to fill up.

An usher walks down the aisle holding a "please turn off your mobile phones," sign on a flappy bit of paper. He reaches the end, walks back up, and puts the sign away. Job done.

processed_IMG_20191023_193102.jpg

The house lights go down. The play begins.

I shift around in my seat.

This is.... well, there's a lot of shouting going on. And I am super not into shouting.

But also, I feel like the playwright is trying really hard to be Ibsen right now. Like, all the component parts are there. And yet, somehow, they don't seem to blend at all. There's this whole crow motif going on, but it feels tacked on. And extra. If this is Ibsen, it's Ibsen-by-numbers.

Next to me, my neighbour's phone lights up as she checks the time.

I glance over, wanting the answer to that question too, but I'm too late. She puts the phone away.

Guess I'll just have to wait then.

And wait I do. As the house lights go back up again, I make a dive for my phone. And... oh my gawd, only an hour has passed. Holy...

I get out my programme in an attempt to distract myself. Let's see what my four pounds has bought me.

There's a piece by the puppet-maker who made the crow. That's cool. It doesn't really say anything. Not about puppets or making them. All bollocks about the beauty of shadows. But, I know how hard it is to get artists to write anything real. So, whatever.

There's an article about the patriarchy in India. That's depressing.

A memorial piece from the playwright about a producer. Which is nice. Not sure the relevance to this play. It makes me think the playwright made a special request for this to go in for her own reasons, rather than anything that would interest or educate the audience. But again... artists.

There's also an intro from the artistic director. And it mentions Ibsen.

I fucking knew it.

I have to hard not to air-punch in satisfaction.

I. Fucking. Knew. It.

Ibsen-by-fucking-numbers.

Two girls sitting in the row ahead of me return, balancing pastry squares on paper napkins.

Those look good. I wouldn't mind me one of those.

No time to think about that though, the lights are going down and my neighbour hasn't come back.

Half the back row is empty.

Looks like I'm going to have to sit through this ersatz Ibsen all by myself.

Oh, oh lordy... okay. Now it's hitting. I was not prepared for all these details.

Gasps of horror float back through the audience and hit me right in the chest, but I'm too far gone to make my own. This is gross and I don't want these mental pictures that I'm getting here.

My stomach is churning and I am so not into this. But I can't move.

As the applause fades, I make my escape. I want to get out of here as fast as possible.

I race towards the station, half driven by the memories of those words clipping at my heels, and half by Citymapper saying I have three minutes to catch my train or I'll be stuck in Kilburn for another twenty.

I have no intention of hanging around.

I speed up, overtaking a couple walking ahead of me.

They're talking about the play.

"I was not expecting that," says one of them, with a shudder of disgust.

You and me both.

You. And. Me. Both.

Just rip my fucking throat out already

It's Saturday morning. And I'm still very, very ill.

Okay, it's past noon and I'm mostly just feeling sorry for myself, but the point still stands.

I'm tired. And I have a cough. And the only show I want to be seeing is the immersive drama: The Duvet. Very conceptual. It involves lying under a duvet. And then being left alone for twelve to fourteen hours. Cups of tea are lovingly placed on the bedside table next to you by a silent and unseen presence. Sadly, I couldn't get the funding. So here we are.

At the Bloomsbury Theatre, for another go at the Bloomsbury Fest.

I'm just gonna pause right now and say that I'm actually super grateful for the Bloomsbury Festival because I was having the absolute worst time trying to find a show in the studio space in the Bloomsbury Theatre to book for. Ten months I've been waiting for something to be programmed that not only qualifies for the marathon, but also, you know, is on a day I can actually attend. And yes, the festival has been booking up churchs and common rooms, adding extra venues to my already overlong list, but it's given me the opportunity to check off this one, so... I can forgive it.

This place is surprisingly big. Lots of glass. It could easily be a fancy office block. Home to hundreds of accountants. If it weren't for the oversized scribble of the Bloomsbury Theatre sign I would never have guessed what was lurking inside.

I go in.

The foyer is almost empty except for the excess amount of wood panelling striping the walls. There's a box office off to one side, sealed behind glass walls.

processed_IMG_20191019_121757.jpg

"I'm collecting for Declan?" I don't know why I felt the need to say the name of the show. Something about this place makes me feel like I need to explain my presence. Perhaps because it's a university theatre. And the knowledge that I wasn't clever enough to go to UCL. And now I'm here. Creeping about their theatres.

"The surname's Smiles," I add hurriedly, just in case she thinks that I'm the Declan I'm collecting for. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

The box officer doesn't seem bothered by my stuttering incompetence. From behind her glass screen she looks at her computer. "Is that Maxine?" she asks.

It is.

A man appears at the counter next to me.

He leans in to talk to the other box officer. "We're performing on Sunday," he tells them. "And I was just wondering whether you could tell us our ticket sales."

I don't get to find our how well my neighbour's show is doing, because my box officer is sliding a ticket under her screen.

"Where is the studio?" I ask at the exact same time as she attempts to give me directions.

"That's just downstairs," she says.

I thank her and go in the direction she's pointing.

Wood panelling competes with dark brick walls as each try to prove that they are the most seventies.

Downstairs, the stripes of pale wood win out, as the dark bricks give way to white walls.

processed_IMG_20191019_122035.jpg

It's busy down here. Turns out it's not just me prepared to wake up early on a Saturday morning to see a one man show in a Bloomsbury basement.

That's a cheering thought.

My biggest fear throughout this entire marathon has been the possibility of finding myself as the only audience member at a show. It hasn't happened yet, and by the looks of it, it won't be happening today. Not even close.

"Ladies and gentlemen," calls out a front of houser. "If you'd like to fill in from the front without leaving any gaps, that would be very helpful."

There's a gentle stir towards the door.

I follow them, handing my ticket to the ticket checker, who tears off the tab before waving me though into a small lobby.

There's a table and chairs in here. An old show posters on the wall.

Through another door, and we're in the studio.

It's small.

Well, it is a studio.

But even so. It's a small, dark, room. With rows of chairs, and black-out curtains covering the walls. Nothing more.

processed_IMG_20191019_122140.jpg

Everyone ignores the front of houser's instructions to fill in from the front, and start dotting the rows with their presence.

I slip into the third row, remembering too late that, with my cough, I should be sitting on the aisle. Way too late. More people arrive.

"Are you saving these?" a girl asks.

"No, go for it," I find myself saying before I can stop myself, and a second later, I'm blocked in by a group of young people.

I rummage around in my bag and find a cough sweet. Hopefully, that will tide me over.

It's really warm in here. I'm wearing a sweatshirt. It's a nice sweatshirt. With dinosaurs on it. But it's a sweatshirt none-the-less. And I am rapidly overheating.

Still, it's a one-hander, in a basement studio, in a pre-lunch slot on a Saturday. We're not going to be in here long. I can do this.

Our performer is already on stage. Well, on the bit of the room that isn't taken up by chairs. Well, the bit of room that isn't taken up by his chair. He's sat slumped down. Asleep. Shifting around every few minutes to find a more comfortable spot. Can't say I blame him. These chairs aren't great. I wouldn't want to nap in them either.

People twist round in their seats, watching who comes in.

As they arrive, hands dart up, waving and beckoning the newcomers into the fold.

Eventually, the trickling stops, and the door is shut.

We begin.

Our man in the chair wakes up. I usually wouldn’t name him without a freesheet, but fuck it. I remember it from the website. Our man in the chair, Alistair Hall, wakes up.

He has a story to tell us. It seems to be distressing him. He just got bitten. On the bum. And if a bite on the bum wasn't enough, the biter then drank from him.

As updates to the vampire myth go, this one is truly concerning.

I pull my sleeves down over my wrists. It may be sweltering down here in this basement, but I don't think I've ever felt so aware of the veins under my own skin and I don't want to be giving the potential biters in the audience any ideas.

There is more to the tale then bum biting though. Our new friend has to tell us about a boy. Declan. A friend, yes. But also more than that.

Someone sitting a few rows behind whispers something to their friend.

"EXCUSE ME," cuts back the saviour of the audience.

The whispers stop.

The air is so dry in here. So dry, I can feel my throat rebelling.

I cough, hoping to clear it.

It doesn't work.

I cough again. And again. And again. I can't stop. Every attempt to do so has my entire body shaking with the effort. Now my sleeves are all the way down over my hand as I do my best to stifle the noise in this tiny, overheated room. I coil in on myself in embarrassment, praying to all the theatre gods that this cough will just stop.

I need a saviour. Someone to give me a withering "EXCUSE ME."

Or even a vampire. Fuck it, I'll even take a biter right now if he promises to rip my throat right out.

The girl sitting next to me leans forward and picks something off the floor. "Would you like some water?" she asks, offering me a cup.

"Thank you so much," I whisper back, trying not to choke on my own words.

The water helps. The cough subsides.

Not long after, our tale ends. I was right. It was a short one.

"Thank you so much for the water," I say to me hero as we put on our coats and prepare to leave.

She touches my arm. "No problem," she says with a smile, as if to say: us audience members need to look out for each other. There's probably some truth in that. I've given out my fair share of cough sweets to fellow theatre-goers in need over the years.

I pick up the cup and drain the rest of the water, leaving the empty plastic on the table out in the foyer.

I've got another show to go before my theatre-going is done for the day. Let's just hope my throat can handle it.

processed_IMG_20191019_122129.jpg

Come to the dark side. We have cushions.

I’m still ill.

But no longer dying. Which is nice.

Which means that I can make the long journey towards Walthamstow without worrying that I might collapse on the way, only to be found six years later, half-eaten by tube mice.

Feeling slightly sniffy and very sorry for myself, I make my way to the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. On Hoe Street.

No need to look at me like that. It’s not my fault that Walthamstow was doing a roaring trade in farm implements back in the day.

Anyway, if we’re talking names, then the alliterative triptych of Mirth, Marvel and Maud is much more worthy of contemplation.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot, usually when I’m walking in circles in an unfamiliar area, trying to find one of these blasted theatres, is what the locals call a place.

Do the residents of Stockwell call the Stockwell Playhouse the Stockwell Playhouse? Or is it just the Playhouse?

Is the Bromley Little Theatre the Bromley Little Theatre to the people of Brommers? Or merely the Little Theatre? Or perhaps the BLT? Or maybe the Sandwich? These are the questions I want answers to, but am too embarrassed to actually ask.

And it’s no different tonight. I don’t believe for a second anyone around here calls the Mirth, Marvel and Maud the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. For one, it’s ridiculous. And for two, it’s way too long. So, what do they call it? Is it the Mirth, as the towering letters on the outside of the building suggest? Or maybe it’s the Triple M. Or…

processed_MVIMG_20191016_194313.jpg

“It’s the old cinema,” says a man as he holds the door open for his companion.

Well, okay then.

I follow them in.

The box office is just inside the door, with a fat letter M resting on the counter, glowing in the ambient (dark) lighting scheme they’ve got going on.

“Sorry,” says the box officer. “I also need to stamp her.”

The lady in front of me goes off in search of her friend and brings her back for a good stamping.

That done, it’s my turn.

“Hi,” I tell the box officer. “I have an e-ticket? Do I also need to sign in?”

Ah yes. The e-ticket.

Now, that had been a bit of work to acquire.

The Marvellous Mrs Maud have left their ticket providing services to Dice. Which is not theatre ticketing software. It’s an app. For gigs. An app that I did not have, and did not want, but was forced to download anyway.

Now, you know, I get it. Some theatres run music events. Some theatres are predominantly music venues. So, like, fine. But also, it doesn’t work and I hate it.

Case in bloody point. Door time. We all know what that means in gig-world. But in theatre? Is that when the house opens, or the show starts? Who knows? Dice certainly ain’t telling me.

And this e-ticket? Is someone going to scan it, or do I have to report into the box office, like I am now. There’s no way to know until I ask. And I hate asking.

Then there’s the whole having-reception thing. Dice won’t let you see the QR codes more than two hours before door time. Nor will they let you screenshot the page once you do have the code.

“Yeah,” says the box officer. “What’s the name?”

With a sigh, I realise the whole app thing was pointless. I drop my phone back into my pocket and give my name.

“Just you?” asks the box officer.

“Just me,” I say, now resigned to my fate of always having to admit my lonesome state at box offices across this city of ours.

She stamps me up high on the wrist, which is apparently a thing now. Backs of hands are no longer in vogue when it comes to stamping.

processed_IMG_20191016_194759.jpg

“Can I get a programme?” I ask, spotting the display on the counter.

“That’s two pounds.”

“In the cup?” I ask. There’s a plastic cup with a scrappy bit of paper stuffed in it. “Programmes,” it says.

I drop my pound coins in it.

One question still remains.

“Where am I going?” I ask her.

She blinks at me. This is clearly not a question she gets often.

“Err, down the stairs?”

Okay then.

It’s ten minutes until door time. Whatever that means. So I go for a look around.

It’s a beautiful building this. Impossibly high ceilings. Panels. Chandeliers. The works.

There seems to be a trend at the moment with theatres. About making the foyer spaces accessible to non-theatre goers. They want people coming in off the street to have a drink and then not see a show.

Mostly I think that’s a nonsense. Not because of the ambition. You do you, theatres. It’s just that there aren’t many theatre bars I’d willingly spend time in without having to be there for theatre purposes. Too big. Too loud. Nowhere to sit. Nowhere to hide.

processed_IMG_20191016_194449_1.jpg

But this place? This place is nice. A wooden carnival stall of a cocktail bar in the middle breaks up the space. Huddles of chairs and tables hug the walls. There are sofas.

It’s quiet, but not echoey.

Ornate, but not intimidating.

Large, but not overwhelming.

I could see myself coming here for a drink.

I mean, if it wasn’t in Walthamstow.

Bit of a trek for a G&T.

I lean against the back of the cocktail stall and have a look at my newly-acquired stamp. It says Marvel.

So, we’ve got Mirth. And Marvel. Where on earth is Maud?

This place may be nice to look at, but it seems to have picked looks over books.

There is a horrendous lack of signage.

Apart from the solitary chalkboard proclaiming the existence of toilets, I can’t see a single notice to direct me anywhere. Let alone the theatre. Which, I would have thought, would be an important element of the M&M&M experience.

I put my glasses on, just in case I’m missing on signs in the general blur, but nope. Nothing. Not unless I’m in serious need of a new prescription, my poor eyesight is not the problem here.

But the box office lady said to go downstairs. So I go downstairs. To the bar. And what do you know. There it is, a sign pointing towards the Maud. Between the water station and the loos.

processed_MVIMG_20191016_195403.jpg

I follow where it's pointing, into a corrdior that smells like a lavatory, and right opposite the door to the ladies', is a bloke. He's standing next to a posing table covered with plastic cups. I think he must be the ticket checker. Or he would be the ticket checker, if this place had tickets.

"Got a stamp?" he asks as I approach.

I pull at my sleeve to show him the back of my wrist. "Yup," I say, and he nods me through.

Inside it's red.

Very red.

I mean, last night I was in a red theatre, so it shouldn't be that shocking. But if anything, the Hilariously Amazing Maud is even redder than the BLT.

The walls are red. The ceiling is red. The decorative mouldings are red. Even the chairs are of a reddish hue.

processed_MVIMG_20191016_195735.jpg

I stand and stare at the chairs.

They are weird. And it's not the reddness that is bothering me. It's that they're evil.

And no, they're not evil because they're red.

I mean, they might be evil because they're red.

I don't know why they are evil. I just know that they are.

Because the powers that be at the Mirthiless Maud have banished them off to the sides of the room.

The rest of the space is given over to long wooden benches.

Clearly, the puritans are in charge in Walthamstow.

So as not to anger them, I take a pew.

Everyone else in here has decided to face the forces of evil arse-on, and sit on the sides.

The same conversation is played out over and over as people file in.

"Where do you want to sit?" a newcomer asks. "Shall we sit in the middle?"

"I might go for a softer seat..." comes the tentative reply.

Eventually, the chairs fill up and people are forced to turn to the benches.

A couple of women join me on mine.

A few minutes later, their friend arrives, and insists that I stand up to let her pass so that she doesn't have to go about the indignaty of walking around and entering via the other side.

Honestly. What is it with people? This is the second night in a row this has happened. Stop making strangers get up when you can ask your friends to get up instead. They presumably want you to sit with them. Me on the other hand, would rather not have to exert myself for that honour.

I'm beginning to think it's the curse of red theatres.

I knew those chairs were evil.

"It's warm in here," says the woman who can't walk round.

There's a pause, and I realise she's talking to me. I quickly hit the power button on my phone, sending the screen black. I hope she hasn't seen me typing all that shit about her.

"It is," I agree. Very warm. They have got the heating on blast.

"Why?" she asks, and I'm left stumped by this question.

"I do approve of heating in October," I say. "But this is a bit much."

She seems satisfied by that statement and she goes back to talking to her friends, and I go back to typing up smack about her in my notes.

Right, now that I have established myself as evil a character as those chairs, I check the time.

It's ten past eight.

Door time or start time, that question remains unanswered. Are we waiting for the clock to run down or has something gone wrong? Who can tell?

Across the way, I can hear the hand dryers rumbling away in the loos.

Sixteen minutes past.

I'm getting kind of bored now.

I twist round in my seat.

Someone is sitting themselves down at the tech desk. That's a good sign.

The stamp checkers closes the door.

The house lights dim.

We're off.

The cast emerge. Eleanor Bryne, Niamh Finlay, and Sara Hosford. They move around a stage cluttered with lamps, shifting things around and doing the sort of busywork that is probably supposed to set the mood but has me wiggling my foot and willing them all to get on with it.

But then we're on the line in a fish factory. Guts are flying everywhere and the talk is pouring out too. Life is hard in 1980's Dublin, even if the music is banging. Tainted Love is on the lips of all three girls, and although I'm a Manson Girl (Marilyn, obviously) I am not unappreciative of the Soft Cell version.

Our cast shimmy and sprint through the lives of an endless procession of characters. Less slipping into them and more running full tilt until they crash right in: bosses and boys and friends, so many friends, and babysitters, and first loves.

And I love them all.

The girls I mean.

The men in their life are terrible. The absolute worst of the worst.

And as we return to the fish factory, and see them on the line, dragging their knives against the firm flesh of those fishy bellies, I can't be the only one thinking those knives might have served a greater purpose.

Applause done. House lights up.

I try to stand but sharp pains run up and down the backs of my thighs.

I winch as I haul myself up to my feet and turn around to glare at the bench responsible.

I knew I should have embraced the dark side and taken one of the cursed chairs.

Being virtuous is a young person's game.

If your name's not on the list

"Madam! Madam! The entrance is this way, the first left. Phoenix Street," comes the familiar call of the Big Issue seller on Charing Cross Road. 

I don't know how long he's been directing audiences to the correct entrance of the Phoenix Theatre, but he's there, keeping the crowds in check, almost every night I've been in the West End on this marathon.

I tweeted sometime back that the Phoenix should put him on the payroll, and I stand by that. He's already doing the work. Might as well make it official.

I am not in need of his assistance tonight though. I know where I'm going. Yes, onto Phoenix Street. But not to the Phoenix Theatre. I've already made my trip to the rock, and there's no time for a return trip before the marathon is over and I draw a thick Sharpie line under my theatre-going for the rest of my life.

I'm actually off to the theatre neighbour. The Pheonix Artist Club, which you might have rightly surmised, is not actually a theatre. But a club. For artists.

But as part of that remit, they have a programme of events. Cabaret. Music. Not marathon-qualifying stuff. Except tonight there's a scratch night. So off I go.

I've never been before. It's been on my list for years, but I never quite got round to it. And by that, I mean, I never managed to work out if I'm allowed in. I've heard from various people that you need to work in the arts to get access. But what that entails seems to differ depending on who you ask for. Some say it's members only. Others that you only need a business card proving you work in the industry to get through the door.

Oh well. No such restrictions exist for attending this show, so it looks like I'm finally getting my chance.

I tuck myself under the canopy and try my best to stay out of the rain as I use my final free minutes to edit a blog post. By the looks of it, this place is underground and I'm not sure what the WiFi situation is going to be down there.

A man comes over and starts singing to the guy next to me. "My old man's a dustman," he belts out, with hand motions to match. "How's your night going?"

The guy mumbles "fine thanks," before moving away.

"Excuse me, ma'am," says the Big Issue seller as he inches his way around me. His leading an entire procession of Come From Awayers. "That's the entrance down there," he tells them, pointing the way.

They thank him and skuttle through the rain towards the long queue where an usher with a strong Scottish voice is keeping everyone in check. "If you're collecting your tickets, it's the last door!"

Blog post vaguely proofread, I figure it's time to go in.

Or at least, try to.

There's someone standing in the doorway. He looks like he can't quite make up his mind about the whole thing.

Perhaps he also got confused about their entry requirements.

"Are you...?" I ask.

"No. Sorry. You go ahead."

So I do.

Inside there's a small podium desk. With a theatre mask stencilled on the front. Gold on blue.

The person ahead of me is trying to pick up their ticket. But by the sounds of it, their name isn't on the list.

Oh dear.

Even though I know I bought myself a ticket, I can feel the anxiety rising. Mainly because I never got a confirmation email. And yes, I checked my spam folder. Nothing. I have nothing to prove that I spent my coin to get in.

I look around in an attempt to distract myself.

There's plenty to look at. The ceiling is painted with a dramatic depiction of a bird. I'm guessing a phoenix, given where we are. Paintings line the stairwell, and there's a general sense of this place having been built into the remains of an antique store, with statues and chandeliers competing for attention.

processed_IMG_20191014_192129.jpg

The person ahead of me and the box officer appear to have reached an impasse.

"Let me just deal with this person," says the box officer and he leans around to beckon me forward.

"Hi, I'm here for the scratch night...?" I say, feeling more unsure about everything with every passing second.

"Yup!" says the box officer.

Well, that's one hurdle cleared at least. There is a show happening. And it's the one I thought it was.

"The surname's Smiles? S. M. I. L. E. S." I say.

He looks down the list. I shift my weight from foot to foot as he works his way down one page, and then another.

"How is it spelt?" he asks.

I spell it out for him again.

"Ah!" he says, alighting on my name. "Maxine?"

"Yup," I say with relief.

"Got it. Enjoy your evening!"

processed_IMG_20191014_192203.jpg

And with that, I'm off down the staircase and into the basement.

"Hiiii!" says a young man in a red waistcoat that I can only presume is an usher. Bit smart for this kind of joint, but I'm not complaining.

"Hello!" I say back. "Um, where's the best place to go?" I ask as I look around, trying to make sense of what is happening down here.

It looks like a regular old bar. Tables and chairs clutter the space. I can't even tell where the stage area is.

"Anywhere you can find to sit," he says with a wave of his arm. "Sit down."

processed_IMG_20191014_192302.jpg

He makes a fair point. There doesn't look like there are many options going spare. Might as well grab any chair going.

I creep around the edge until I find an empty table against the wall.

There are cast sheets on the table.

Hastily edited cast sheets. Someone as gone over one of the titles with a biro. It's ‘NOT Been Fingered, ’ rather than ‘NEVER Been Fingered.’ Better remember that.

Looks like there are seven of them in all (with the Not Been Fingered acting as our finale). I hope they're short. I was rather hoping for an early night.

Now that I'm settled, I can have a look around.

This place is not somewhere that has ever said no to decoration. Rows of headshots top the bar. Chandeliers and disco balls hang next to each other. The walls are covered with signed show posters. A few even making their way onto the ceiling, finding their way into the small scraps of space that aren't crowded with gilded panels that look like they got knicked sometime during the dissolution of the monasteries.

A group of red waistcoated young people rush into the middle of the room, onto a platform which I can't see, but I presume must be a stage.

processed_MVIMG_20191014_204803.jpg

They're not ushers at all. They're actors. Playing ushers. Or actors playing ushers while trying to make it as actors. Actors who, incidentally, I won't be naming as they are all acting students this evening. So really, they're... students trying to make it as actors, playing ushers, who are trying to make it as actors. All very meta. Anyway, they are not happy with the audience. Orders to turn off our phones fly in between sneers of disgust at our behaviour and mocking jibes at one another.

A great choice to start the evening. Make sure we're all on our best behaviour.

Between acts, a host comes on to keep the energy up and introduce all the players.

A woman sitting on the table in front turns around. "Can I take?" she asks, indicating one of the spare freesheets on my table.

I slide it over to her.

"Can we…?" This time it's the woman on the table next to me. She wants to bunk up at my table in pursuit of a better view. I slide across the bench, and both she and the guy she's with squidge in next to me. This bench really wasn't meant for three.

After the fifth short of the evening, featuring a woman awaiting her execution, our host returns to the stage. "I think it’s time for a five-minute break," she tells us. "Head to the bar and I'll call you back when we're ready to start."

processed_IMG_20191014_192257.jpg

There's a scamper towards the bar, and the exit, as those who've already seen their friends perform make a bid for escape.

The table next to me frees up and I no longer have to share my bench as the interlopers make their way over in search of better climes.

"Ladies and gentlemen and everything in between," says our host. "We are good to go. Ting! Ting! Ting!" she says, mimicking a theatre bell. Adding: "Shhhh," when that doesn't work.

As we make our way into the final two pieces a man comes over from the bar and gestures towards the space next to me on the bench.

I gesture back, to indicate that he's welcome to it.

After being squished for so long, I'm beginning to feel a little lonely back here all by myself.

We make it through to the end. Seven plays. And not a single dud. That must be a record. Okay, one dud. But out of seven, that’s still very impressive for a night of new writing.

Though, I am a little concerned as to what was wrong with that banana in the last one. At least it had a clear moral though: don't be eating fingered food.

The host brings back all the actors for one mega bow session, which really has to be the way to do it. None of this stop-starting with curtain calls. Save it all for the end.

"Is that what we just watched?" asks my new neighbour. He points over to my cast sheet.

I slide it over to him and he reads it while I get my applause on.

I can't help but sneak glances over to the other end of my table though.

I really hope he doesn't want to keep that cast sheet. I took pictures of it. I'm not an amateur over here. But still. I kinda want to take it home with me. And by kinda, I mean: I will literally be thinking about that lost cast sheet for the next fifteen years if he doesn't give it back.

He does, but whether that's due to his lack of interest in the more papery things in life, or the feeling of my narrowed eyes watching him carefully, I don't care to ask.

I check the time.

Twenty-past nine.

Right then. That's a challenge right there: bed by ten-thirty. Here we go.

Cast sheet in bag. Jacket on. Umbrella out. I'm off.

Another one bites the dust

All around me books are being lowered. Commuters lean forwards in their seats.

Somewhere in this carriage buskers are playing Despacito and we all want to see who’s responsible for this crime against Latin pop. I don't think I'm alone in the belief that if you’re going to be playing a song on the tube, you should probably memorise the lyrics first.

The tube driver agrees with me.

An announcement is played.

“There are beggars and buskers operating on this train. Please do not encourage their presence by supporting them.”

Bit harsh.

People immediately start reaching into their wallets to hand over their change.

That’ll teach TFL.

The lethologic musicians hop out at the next stop and rush around to the next carriage.

I can still hear them playing their intermittently acoustic cover version as I change platforms at Cannon Street.

The rest of my journey is quiet.

Not many people making the journey to Deptford tonight.

They haven’t heard the call of the Albany.

It feels weird being back already. After a gap of six years, I’m now on my second visit of the week. This time though, I’m hitting the main house.

As I round the corner into Douglas Way and find myself grinning.

Not because of the theatre. Sorry, Albs. I find it hard to get sentimental about old workplaces. I’m smiling because it’s dark. Properly dark. For months I’ve been taking my exterior theatre photos in blazing sunshine, and now, finally, the nights are closing in and I don’t have to spend my evenings leaping between the shadows and feverously rubbing sunscreen into every exposed inch of my skin.

Seriously, it’s not easy maintain this maggot-pale colouring I’ve got going on.

I burn. I freckle.

I mean, it’s fine. No one said being Goth was easy. But it’s nearly October, and it’s my time. Sweaters and shawls and coats and velvet: here I come.

And bless the Albany. They have the heating on. I can feel it as soon as I walk through the door. The whoosh of heavy dry air that feels so eternally comforting, and proving that I don’t mind heat, as long as it is entirely artificial.

I join the queue at the box office.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the box officer, turning over her list of names to find me on the back. She grabs a ruler, and a highlighter, and runs a very straight line through my entry.

“Let me just stamp you,” she says once her highlighting is complete.

I offer her my hand, and she places the stamp up on the back of my wrist.

Strange location to pick, but I respect her artistic choices in stamp placement.

processed_IMG_20190928_193925.jpg

My unspecified ringed planet is red this time. To designate the main house, I presume. We wouldn’t want audience members sneaking their way between the studio and stage space without having been properly stamped and accounted for.

“Can I take one of these?” I say, pointing to a pile of freesheets on the desk.

“Oh!” she says, surprised. “Yes, of course.” She grabs one and hands it to me.

The house isn’t open, and I don't really fancy standing out here in the foyer, so I go over to the cafe to see what’s happening in there.

processed_IMG_20190928_193949.jpg

The answer is: not a lot.

People sit quietly at tables, sipping on drinks and waiting.

I find a table all to myself and join in the quiet time.

“Die! Die! Die! OLD PEOPLE DIE!” someone reads dramatically from their freesheet.

processed_MVIMG_20190928_193955.jpg

I can’t blame her. It’s a really great title. Quite possible the best one of the marathon. Even better than Kill Climate Deniers over at the Pleasance.

I take off my jacket and scarf. It's warm in here.

I’m feeling real cosy right now, and am fully prepared to join the climate deniers this winter if it means we get the have the heating on blast until March.

“Ladies and gentleman!” says a front of houser. “The house is now open for Die! Die! Die…!” he falters, and we all laugh. “Old… people… die.”

Great title. Seriously, fucking great.

There’s a scrapping of chairs as we all stagger to our feet and make our way back into the foyer, and through the doors into the main house, holding up our hands, or wrists, to show the usher that we have been marked by the red stamp.

Through the door and we get a nice view of the undercarriage of the seating.

We walk around, through the arched corridor that circles the space, until we find our way to the front.

The central block of seating is filling up fast.

processed_MVIMG_20190928_195054_1.jpg

I pick my way across the stage, leaping over a wire, powering a floor light, with previously unknown grace.

I pick a seat in the third row, as is my preference. But on the aisle, as a concession to this being quite a large space, even if half the stage is taken up by a mountain of seating tonight.

As the audience shifts around, selecting their seats, I get out my phone and try to finish a blog post.

processed_IMG_20190928_195156.jpg

But a gentle stirring around the room makes me look up.

Over there, behind the stage area, peeking from behind a curtain, are two performers. Jon Haynes and David Woods. They’re stepping out. Or at least, I think they are.

They’re moving so slowly, it’s hard to tell what their motivation is.

A few solo giggles sound off around the audience, unsure how to take this snail-like state. Are we supposed to be laughing? Is this a comedy? It’s hard to tell.

The pair cling onto each other as they lower themselves down the treacherous step from walkway to stage.

Then they begin the long walk to their set: a table, and two chairs.

It takes minutes. Multiple ones.

I’m beginning to get a bit bored.

The pair dribble and fart and talk over one another for the next sixty minutes or so, sometimes managing a smile-worthy line, but mostly shuffling around interminably.

I can’t help but think of that Caryl Churchill play where an entire act was dedicated to the dressing and undressing of an elderly man in a care home.

A work of genius to many. Painfully dull to me.

A few people at that onr took the Here We Go title literally, and walked out when it became clear that this cycle of costume changes was not going to end any time soon.

Over here in the Albany, a couple sitting in the second row are having the same feelings, and slip and out with a clatter of flipping seats.

With a loud bang, the show eventually ends, and we are free to leave.

And pay.

I’d forgotten about that.

Another Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy show.

I pull out my purse and have a look at what’s going on in there. Not a lot. No notes at all. I prod at the coins, trying to count up the non-coppers. It doesn’t take long.

But as we make out way round the walkway and out the auditorium door, I spot an usher holding some fancy looking equipment.

“Have you got the card reader?” I ask him.

He has.

He prods away at a few buttons on his phone. “Sorry,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t like to connect.”

“I can try to find some cash…?” I say, knowing full well I only have three quid on me at best.

“No, I can try and get it working for you,” he says, but he doesn’t sound all that convinced.

“Are you sure?”

“Ummm.”

I dither, not knowing what to do.

But then he smiles. Success. “Yeah! There we go. How much would you like to donate.”

“Ten?” I suggest, finding myself wanting his approval. Ten is the suggested donation. It says so on the signs. I gave ten to the other show. The one in the studio.

He doesn’t say anything though, just gives me the card reader all set up and ready, and let’s me do my thing.

Payment accomplished I make my way back to Deptford station.

“I was kinda expecting the handbag to come out at the end,” says a woman also waiting on the platform. “It was still under the rug and he just stood on it.”

That’s true. I had forgotten all about the handbag.

“It was deliberate, no doubt,” she finishes.

I’m sure it was. Just because it didn’t do the business for me, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one hell of a business plan going on.

And anyway, still a fucking great title.

Gone to the Dogs

There's a paper bag lying, discarded, on the ground in Douglas Way. It must have had something very tasty in it not that long ago because three pigeons are now circling it, pecking at it, like overworked nurses attempting to impose hospital corners on a beanbag.

One of them, the one I've been thinking of as the leader of this trio, manages to get its head inside. A second later, its back out again, bringing a half-eaten cookie with it.

The other pigeons stare at this manna from carb heaven in wonder. No manky crumbs for them this evening. They be feasting like kings.

But the dinner party don't last long, because across the road, three dogs have just finished their run around the park and are barrelling through.

One runs on ahead, scattering pigeons in his wake.

It's owner calls after it. "Don't forget, the only reason I have you is because no one else wanted you."

And with that grade A guide to parenting left hanging in the air, they disappear.

It's probably time for me to go to. I've been hanging around for fifteen minutes now. It's not that I'm avoiding going inside. It's just that I don't want to, and I'm putting it off.

I mean, it's not like I don't already know what the Albany is like. I've been here before. Fucking hell, I worked here. This is where I got my first real job in theatre. Well, the first one that didn't have 'intern' in the title. It's where I met Allison, who is now a marathon-semi-regular, so, you know, that's a lasting friendship if ever there was one. And it's all because of this place. This low, long, building, sat squat on the edge of the square that once a week houses Deptford Market. That was probably a great idea at the time. Placing the arts right in the middle of the community and all that. But the bars now criss-crossing all the ground-floor windows doesn't really scream neighbourhood integration.

I head through the automatic doors and into the foyer, trying to get a sense of what’s changed in all the years that have passed since I was last here.

The truth is, not a lot.

The tables and chairs in the cafe look like they’ve been upgraded, but other than that, everything looks exactly the same as I left it. The box office is still taking up that same corner. The counter top as pink as ever. I would even swear that bunting hasn’t shifted since 2013.

processed_IMG_20190922_164927.jpg

It’s all rather comforting really.

I join the queue, and when I get to the front, give my name to the box officer.

“Maxine? That’s one,” she says, using a ruler to draw a very straight line through my name. She flips open the lid to a large ink pad, and inks up a small stamp.

“There you go,” she says, applying it to the back of my hand. “It’ll be there in the Studio. Doors will open in about five minutes.”

Plenty of time for me to inspect my new artwork.

processed_MVIMG_20190922_165201.jpg

It’s a planet. Or at least I think it’s a planet. One with rings, so that’s Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, or Uranus, if my GCSE Double Science Award serves me well. I can’t narrow it down any further. I flunked out of A-level Physics.

Someone hands me a brochure. It’s for a festival of aging. Not a subject I try to think of all that often. I have a flick through though, checking the venue names to see if there’s anything I missed.

I skip over the page advertising the 48-hour durational work set in an old people’s home. I am absolutely not doing that. No way. Not even for the marathon. I have logged it as an experience, not theatre, and I will not hear another word about it.

A queue starts to build over by the door. Lots of young, cool, looking people with oversized clothing and pastel hair. It’s all very Deptford.

I hang back. I’m not all that fussed about being first through the door. The Studio is a small space. And with a one-man show about dementia, I’m not sure I actually want to be all that close to the front.

Some keen sort rattles the door. It’s locked.

A passing front of houser spins on his heel “Oh! Hang on!” he says, rushing back towards the door. “We’ll open in about five minutes!”

True to his word, about five minutes later, the doors are opened and we begin to file ourselves in.

We all twist our hands round to show him the planets stamped on the back, looking like we’re all throwing the mimsiest gang-sign going.

It gets us in though, and we make our way down the long, dark, corridor which winds its way around the back of the main theatre space, towards the far end of the building.

A sign on the door reminds us that this show is a Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy. “Please donate what you can into the buckets,” it tells us. “We also accept card payments. Suggested amount £10 (or £5 concessions) but feel free to donate less or more!”

processed_IMG_20190922_170050.jpg

Buckets. That’s interesting. I’ve only seen it done with envelopes before.

I go in.

It’s dark in here. Really dark.

The brick walls are painted black and the windows are hidden behind black-out curtains. The only speck of colour are the iron beams painted red.

Chairs have been set up in right-angled banks, fencing off a corner for the stage.

I slip into the end of the third row. There’s no rake, of course. But I can just about catch a glimpse of our performer, sat behind a drum kit.

There has to be a rule, worked out in secret meetings between artists and programmers, that spaces with bad-sightlines should only be filled with sitting-down performers. You don’t catch actors sitting down on big stages with raked seating. Oh no. But as soon as you’re in a titchy studio space, there they are, getting to grips with their floor-work skills.

At least Antosh Wojcik has the excuse of an instrument that needs playing.

processed_IMG_20190922_170124.jpg

The doors close.

The lights dim

We begin.

Drumming away, Wojcik tells us a story. He was in a band. A metal band. He was the drummer. Or one of the drummers. There were two drummers. And that’s it. That was the whole band. Two boys on drums.

He imagines the two of them, in a home together, old and grey, remembering nothing but the music. The pounding of the drum solos.

And he thinks of his own grandfather. Lost in a maze of missing connections as dementia takes hold.

As he plays, ratting out that beat, Wojcik’s fluffy hair bounces in time with the music. He pushes back his long fringe in between sections. Which, I don’t mind telling you, is all very pleasing and troubling in equal measure. As he talks about a deep and personal grief, I want nothing more than to plate up some freshly made biscuits, pinch his cheek, and tell him it will all be alright.

You know, some women out there, they go all maternal in the face of troubled young men. Me? I’ve leapt straight into grandmothering.

Just as I’m about to start searching in my bag for a hairbrush to offer him, a man sitting two rows ahead leans across, lifting his arm over the seat next to him, and blocking my view.

Now I can only hear the words as they tumble over the beat, without the distraction of floppy hair and sad eyes.

Honestly, it’s a relief.

We make it through to the end, with no further issues other than a few broken hearts.

Wojcik leaves us behind in the studio, not returning despite our applause going on without him.

Eventually, the lights come back on and we struggle to our feet.

Everyone is very quiet as we make for the door, and back down the corridor.

At the end, a front of houser stands waiting for us, bucket in hand.

I pull out a note, and slip it into the slim gap at the top.

Not too sure about this method, to be honest. I think I prefer envelopes. Although I imagine this public payment does more to extract funds from audiences. No one wants to be seen to only give a few coins or a half-eaten cookie…

 

Hedgehogs are a Thing in London Theatre. Who knew?

Second show of the day and I almost didn't make it. 

I left plenty of time. There was a whole three hours between the end of show one and the start of show two. And I didn't stray far, only popping back to Finchley to pick up some stuff I needed. And, okay, maybe having quick raid of the cupboards for biscuits, in exchange for gossip over a cup of tea. That wasn't the problem. Getting back off the sofa was.  

I'm not very good at this whole more-than-one-show-in-a-day thing. And the knowledge that not only did I actually have to go to a second theatre, but then I'd have to write about it afterwards… Well, my bum was firmly planted and had no intention of getting back up again. 

At a quarter to seven, things were getting worrying. 

Because I couldn’t miss this one. I really couldn’t. I’ve been waiting nine damn months for them to programme a show. For most of that time, their website had been so static with old events, I thought the place had closed permanently. But no, they were undergoing refurbishment. 

And now, they’re back. 

For one night only. 

With no promise of a follow-up show. 

I grabbed my phone, and without letting myself think too much about it, booked myself a ticket. There. No escaping it after that. I had to go. Or else lose out on a whole fifteen quid and change. Not an amount of cash I'm really in a position to throw away.

With a bit of help, I was able to lever myself into an upright position, waddle my way over to the tube station, and journey the three stops towards Highgate, where the next theatre on my marathon list lives: the peculiarly named Red Hedgehog. 

I can’t see much from the outside. Stained glass windows hide whatever activities are lurking within. But the door is open, and it looks like it’s ready for business. 

Through the door and there’s a table set up with money box and programmes. And a box officer. Wearing a sparkly top hat, which is doing it’s mostest to wake me up. 

“Hi, the surname’s Smiles?” I say. 

The box officer dithers and I notice there’s no list of names on this table. 

“I booked on ticketsource?” I say, turning around my phone to show him the booking confirmation. 

“You’ve already booked?” he says, clearly relieved. “That’s fine then.” 

I point to one of the programmes. “Can I get one of these?” 

“That’s the programme,” he says. “That’s one pound. But…!” He does a magician’s assistant-pose, holding up another, identical-looking, booklet. “If you get one of these, this is a booklet of poetry, that’s three pounds, and you get the programme for free.” 

“That’s the bargain then?” 

He nods. Yup. That’s the bargain. 

Well, who am I to turn down such an offer? I hand him the three quid and get both booklets in exchange. 

Right, time to figure out where to sit. 

The place has been set up cabaret style. 

Rows of chairs fight for space between the tables.

It’s all very cheerful looking. Mismatched vases do their best to contain brightly coloured blooms and ginghaam tablecloths clash wildly with each other.

A woman moves between the tables, depositing tealights. 

On the far side, on the other side of a knocked through wall, is the stage. All leather sofas and what looks like a piano lurking over in the corner.

processed_IMG_20190921_193702.jpg

A lady catches my eye and grins. 

“Where’s the best place to sit?” I ask. 

She thinks about this, then beckons me to follow her, sliding our way in between the tables until we’re in the middle of a row. 

“The cast are going to come through from this side,” she says pointing. “Most of the time they’ll be between those two sofas. Sometimes they’ll sit on them, but mostly they’ll be under that light. You see?” 

I do see. 

I pick a seat over on the far side, second row. You know how I hate sitting at the front. Plus, I fancy getting a proper look at that piano. 

It's a bit squishy in here. The tables are packed tight and the chairs are packed even tighter.

I distract myself with a quick look at the poetry book. I have to admit, poetry isn’t my thing. I wish it was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind poetry. I just don’t understand poetry. I think it’s my lack of musicality that does it. I can’t clap out a recognisable beat, and I can’t hear the rhythm in poetry. I can just about cope with spoken word. But poetry? Nope. Sucks, but there you go. 

I move onto the programme. That’s where my heart lives. Tucked up between the credits and the biogs. I don’t need to tell you how much I love a good programme. 

processed_MVIMG_20190921_194436.jpg

From amongst the headshots, I spot one rather familiar looking photo. It’s the lady who advised me on seating choices. Judit Catan. The writer and poet and producer. 

Oh, well that’s not embarrassing at all. But I suppose she knows the sightlines! 

“How did you hear about the show?” she asks, leaning over the back of a chair to talk to me. 

Oh dear. It’s that question again. 

I run through a few possible answers. Telling her that I’ve been stalking the Red Hedgehog’s website for nine months is probably going to provoke more questions, if not a raised eyebrow. I’m a theatre nerd with nothing else to do on a Saturday night is going for the pity angle which I don’t really want to be exploiting right now. I decide to go for the truth. “It’s a weird one,” I tell her. “I’m doing this challenge where I’m trying to visit every theatre in London within a year.” 

She looks taken aback. I’m not surprised. I’m well used to that expression by now. 

“But why this show?” she insists. 

Is there a way to tell her that Boris Johnson could be spending his prorogation sitting on stage, picking his nose for an hour, and I would have to book it if it he was doing it at a theatre I hadn’t been to before, without sounding rude? Probably not. 

I shake my head. “I’ve been waiting for this venue to programme something, and here we are,” I say, throwing up my arms to demonstrate what a delightful coincidence it all is. 

A man sneaks into the row behind me and shifts his chair. 

“Am I in your way?” I ask.  

“Oh, no. Don’t worry,” he says, even though I clearly am.  

Then he asks it. “Do you know someone in the show?” 

Oh dear. You’ve been doing this marathon with me long enough to know what that means.  

“Well,” I start. “It’s a bit of a weird one…” And I tell him about the marathon.  

On the other side of me, the writer is chatting with a newcomer. She points to me. “I was just telling him about your theatre challenge,” she says. 

“You’re visiting every London theatre?” he asks. 

“Yup,” I confirm. And tell him about the marathon. You’d think after giving the same speech three times in one night I’d be a bit better at it. But my shame keeps me from forming coherent sentences. Bless every single person who has had to struggle their way through my jumbled explanations this year. 

The room is filling up. 

“Anyone sitting here?” asks someone struggling into my row. 

“No. You go for it,” I tell him. 

He nods and plonks himself down. “Otherwise I can’t see the piano,” he explains. 

No explanation needed my friend. I had the exact same thinking when I chose this little corner of ours. 

On cue, the box officer comes over and sets himself up at the piano, ready to play.

We start. Insanity and Song in The News Room. 

No dimming of lights. We’re going for the shared light experience here. Lamps on stage. Tealights on tables. The lighting rig above our heads is getting no use tonight. 

Songs and poems alternate, with the framing device of being in a newsroom. Correspondents called out to step forward and give their thoughts, in the form of stanzas. 

The front row is a glitter of screens as people get out their phones to take photos. 

Behind me is the whirr and click of a proper camera. 

“That was great,” says the person sitting behind me as the interval hits. 

“Yes,” I nod. “But freezing.” After spending the entire day sweltering, I now have to pull my jacket over my shoulders and dig out my scarf from my bag. 

“Is the bar open?” my neighbour asks as nobody moves from their seats. 

The writer stands up. “The bar is still available to anyone,” she announces. 

A few people do their best to escape from the tightly packed chairs and make their way over to the bar. 

I slump down in my seat and shiver. It really is cold in here now. 

Act two starts up and a woman in the front row is determined not to miss a bit of it. Holding up her phone, she starts recording the songs. Task complete, she brings up WhatsApp and starts sending her freshly minted audio to someone. A click and a tap later, it starts playing back. 

She jabs at her phone, trying to get it to stop, but it plays on, drowning out the cast as they gamely try not to lose focus. 

The writer leans over. “I’ll send you the show recording,” she says. 

The woman nods. 

But a second later her phone is back up and she’s pinching the screen to get the perfect photo. 

I think we can safely say that this show will not be short of production images. 

At the end there’s applause and the writer nips on stage to give her thanks to everyone. 

processed_IMG_20190921_214652.jpg

The bar is back open. It’s time to start celebrating. 

I pull my jacket tight close around me and make a sprint for the tube station. 

 

The Art of the Dead Woodlouse

I'm at Kings Place. I'm not sure what Kings Place is. But I'm here all the same.

Apart from having a name whose lack of apostrophe is making me itchy, Kings Place is also a great big, glass-fronted, building just behind King's Cross station. There are banners out front decorated with soundwaves that have apparently been lifted from... The Guilty Feminist podcast. And suchlike. Ceramics fill the windows. They're for sale. If you have a couple of grand to drop on something that looks like a mouldy ship's model. I don't, so I go inside.

processed_MVIMG_20190921_153943.jpg

The confirmation email said to pick up my tickets from the box office just inside the door.

That was useful, because without that instruction I would have wandered off into this space in an open-mouthed gaze.

It's fucking massive. With those towering ceilings you find in fancy new office blocks, where you can see into each of the tens of floors overlooking the foyer. Like a slice has been taken out of the most boring layer cake in history.

processed_MVIMG_20190921_154314.jpg

I go over to the reception (which, I guess, is also a box office) and give my surname.

“And the postcode please?" asks the box officer as she pulls my ticket from the ticket box.

I give it, and get handed a ticket for my troubles.

Right then. Time to investigate this joint.

On the far side it looks like there is some sort of cafe action going on. Next to it, closed off and guarded by a doorman, is: The Rotunda. I'm guessing that's a schmancy restaurant.

There's a great big long table, long enough to restage the Red Wedding, overlooking two massive escalators, descending into (and rising from) a pit of a basement.

processed_IMG_20190921_154131.jpg

According to the signage on the wall, that's where the theatre spaces live.

I ride down, adding to my mental list of theatres with escalators in them (Royal Opera House, Gillian Lynne, artsdepot...).

We sail past a gallery level with lots of terrifying paintings, and land next to a sculpture that I'm pretty sure is meant to be a dead woodlouse.

Two young men pause to look inside at the poor curled up skeleton within.

I look around for Hall Two. That's where I'll be spending my matinee today. Turns out it's just behind a small seating area.

The doors aren't open yet, but the sofas are already crammed with people ready to launch themselves at them. Opera crowds are keen. Combine with that unallocated seating and you've got a pile of people willing to turn up an hour early to join the scrum.

They're quiet now. Poised. Waiting. Reading programmes.

Ooo. I want me one of those. I frickin' love a programme.

There's a cloakroom desk over on the other side, close to the doors. And there seems to be some sort of sign on the counter. I can't read it from here, but I'm betting it's advertising the price of programmes.

I go over and yup - £3.50. I can do that.

"Would you like to pay by cash or card?" the front of houser asks.

I choose card. I still haven't bought the ticket for my evening show, and I'm worried I'll need my notes to get it on the door.

He presses a few buttons on his tablet, and the card machine instructs me to do my thing.

“There's two pieces to it," explains the front of houser. "The Chamber Opera and the Text," he says, handing over not one, but two programmes.

I look at them in wonder, my heart pounding with the thrill of being given two whole programmes.

“Love a twofer," I tell him, scuttling away with my prizes.

The doors are opening now. Time to go in.

I show my ticket to one of the ushers. “Please sit on the far side,” she says, letting me pass.

Ah. Okay.

processed_IMG_20190921_154719.jpg

I can see what she’s after. A slim apron pushes out from the stage, and rows of chairs have been set up on either side.

I pick my way over to the far side.

The front row is filling up, but I dismiss that, sliding down to the end of the second row.

“It’s unallocated,” explains an usher to a confused audience member. “So technically you can sit wherever you want. We’re just trying to fill up the rows.”

He chooses the second row too. Next to me.

“Is the screen changing?” asks a lady indicating the large screen above the stage. “Dear Marie Stopes,” it reads. That’s the name of the opera we’re seeing.

“I’m not sure…” replies the usher.

“I want to make sure that I can see it if it does…”

The usher nods. Yes, she wouldn’t want to miss that.

“Is that seat free there?” she asks, pointing to an empty seat in the front row.

He obligingly goes off to ask the man sitting next to it. Turns out it is free, and she is able to sit in it, content in the knowledge that should the screen change, she’ll be able to see it.

The musicians come out and start setting up as the last of the audience wander about trying to pick the best seats. It’s getting tricky now. Both front rows are full and no one wants to sit further back. Not when there is no rake going on.

I look around.

It’s a nice room.

Very high ceilings.

The walls are painted a calming shade of dark blue grey. There’s wood panelling. But like, the modern sort. That doesn’t look like it was ripped from a murder mystery novel. The seats are fairly comfortable and aren’t too closely packed.

It’s all rather nice.

Over on the opposite side, a woman has perched herself on the side of the stage to read her programmes. I can’t quite tell why she has perched herself on the side of the stage to read her programmes. It doesn’t look like a very comfy place to sit. And she has a chair. I can see it. Just a few feet away from the spot on the stage that she has claimed as her own.

It’s still a few minutes to show time, so I get out my own programmes.

They’re made in exactly the same way. A single piece of paper, arranged in a letter fold, to form six pages. One has the libretto. The other the credits. They’re nicely designed. And printed on good paper. I’m rather happy with them, until I remember that I paid over three quid for these things and then I feel a little ripped off. These are freesheets. Or at least, they should be freesheets. What counts as a programme note in this thing was written by the composer. At most, I would charge a pound for them. In a concession to the pleasing layout and nice paperstock.

processed_IMG_20190921_154924.jpg

Still feeling a little outraged, the doors close and the lights dim.

The lady on the stage gets up slowly, packing away her programmes and fussing around in her bag before finally going back to her seat and sitting herself down.

We begin.

The role of Marie Stopes seems to be being sung by a counter-tenor, which… fine. But also… why? I mean, Feargal Mostyn-Williams is great. And has a name I most heartfully approve of. But not quite sure why he is here. Is this for musical reasons? I really hope it’s for musical reasons. And not some bizarre idea that an opera entirely sung by women would be a bad thing. And let's not even touch on the single character with education and authority being gender swapped to male…

Anyway, Marie Stropes is being sung by a counter-tenor, and the whole thing is rather depressing. The past was, like, really bad. The present isn’t all that great either. But the past was worse.

Jess Dandy and Alexa Mason hand out pamphlets to the front row.

The person sitting in front of me gives hers a cursory look before dropping it under her seat.

Ungrateful wretch.

Forty-five minutes of death and pain later, we reach the end.

We applaud.

The cast wave up two more people. The creatives I’m guessing. They all link hands down the apron and bow. First to one side of the room. Then the other.

The lights come up.

It’s time to go.

Except no one is leaving.

The woman sitting in front of me gets up and goes over to talk to one of the musicians. There’s lots of cries of “how are youuuuu, it’s been agessss,” around the room.

I reach under the chair and grab the pamphlet, flipping it open to see what was inside.

Nothing.

processed_IMG_20190921_164528.jpg

I lay it reverently on the chair, hoping the owner comes back to claim it.

As for me, I’ve got another show to get to.

My row is still crowded, so I have to inch my way around the back, avoiding the crowded groups determined to block every possible route of escape.

I make it though.

Past the dead woodlouse, up the escalator, across that cake stand and out into the sunshine.

I breath in the claggy traffic-fumed air. One more show. Then I can go home and sleep.

Let’s do this thing.

Third Door on the Right and Straight on Till Morning

Well, it's happened. The marathon has brought me to Croydon.

Not a place I'd ever thought I would need to go, but life is funny that way.

And you know what? I've been here all of thirty seconds, and it's true what people say.

There are trams.

I can hear them clanging their way up the hill, with people scattering in their wake so as not to get run over. I stick to the prescribed crossings. You know I ain't good with roads. I am so going to get run over one day, and I'll be damned if it's by a trolley.

The pavements are cluttered with ads for Fairfield Halls. I can't move for seeing posters advertising their opening gala, and that Angela's Ashes musical which nobody asked for. There's even artwork painted onto the tarmac itself. They are going hard on the marketing. But that's not my destination tonight.

Nope, I keep on walking, turn into a cobbled street and stumble down a very steep hill. Strings of hanging bulbs criss-cross over the courtyard, and tables with long benches are set up under them.

It's all very cute.

This place is giving me some serious Neal's Yard vibes. The signage makes me feel like the windows should be crammed with classy blue bottles and dried herbs. Even the name is a rip: Matthew's Yard.

processed_IMG_20190920_190043.jpg

Except I won't be buying overpriced skincare tonight. Oh no. I've heard tell that there is a theatre lurking somewhere within. And I really hope the rumours are true, because I've booked myself in to see a play.

Inside it's all big communal tables and brick walls painted with murals. There's a kitchen advertising itself as a vegan grill, and a counter covered with what I like to call I'm-having-a-bad-day cakes. You know the kind. Ones where a single slice will cover an entire plate. And have so much icing it'll dam your tear ducts for a least a couple of hours.

processed_IMG_20190920_192039.jpg

What I don't see, is a theatre.

I have a wander around. There's a staircase, but that only leads halfway up a wall and no further. There's a back room with a ping pong table in it, and nothing else. And a gallery. This also leads to nowhere.

I'm stumped.

It's 7.15pm and the show will be starting in fifteen minutes. And I have no idea where the theatre is.

I look around, trying to work out which of these people are here to see a show, and which are only after the vegan burgers. Everyone is eating, or drinking, or looking really intensely at the menu.

No one looks to be ready to be watching a play right now.

My anxiety, already rumbling away in the background after all those trams, flares right the fuck up.

I bring up their website on my phone. It's not a very good website. They don't even list their events on it. Oh no, You have to go to the Facebook page for that. What they do have, however, is details about how to hire their spaces. I look at the theatre page, trying to get clues about it’s location. But there's nothing.

I do find out it's the first crowd-funded theatre in the UK. Which is nice. Not very useful in this moment. But nice all the same.

It's no good. I'm going to have to ask.

I get in the queue at the cake counter.

"Sorry, we are only taking cash tonight," says the young woman serving when I get to the front.

"Oh, no. I was just wondering where the theatre was," I ask, suddenly panicking that I was in the wrong place. There is no theatre. And never was.

"It's through there," she says, pointing to a doorway behind the counter. There's a sign hanging over it. It says: Lounge. "It's third door on the right."

I look through the door. There's a corridor going on down there. A very dark corridor.

"Okay... Do I need to check in with a box office, or..."

She laughs. "No, it's quite informal, I think."

Right... Well, here goes anything. I start walking down the dark hallway. Counting the doors on the right until I reach the third one. It's closed. Very closed. And we all know the rules of theatre doors: don't be opening them if they are shut.

But opposite there is an open door. I have a look inside. It's the promised lounge. Complete with faerie lights, tables, chairs, and even a piano.

It's deserted.

There's no one around.

Slightly scared, I go back to the cafe part and stand around, trying to think what to do.

The clock on my phone ticks on. It's 7.29pm.

My anxiety is burning up all to hell. I can't believe I came all the way to Croydon, risking death by tram, for this.

I might just go home...

A man emerges from the corridor. He's wearing a very smart white shirt. And a tie. He lifts up his arms, high above his head. The chatter in the cafe stills as we all look at him.

When he has our attention, he dramatically points behind him,

I think he wants us to follow him.

A table full of young people clatter out of their seats and go down the corridor. As does a girl who had been sitting by herself.

I follow on behind.

Down the dark corridor, and through the third door on the left. Now open.

Inside is a large room. There's a tech desk at the back. And a low wooden stage at the front. In between are rows of folding chairs, white with vinyl covered cushions the colour of sweeties. Pink and green and orange and blue.

processed_IMG_20190920_193246.jpg

The group all make a rush for the front row.

As does the lone girl.

I leave them too it. You know how much I hate sitting in the front row.

I slide myself into the second. Right to the end.

The man in the white shirt hops onto the stage and grooves to the music playing. A couple of girls from the group groove back at him, swaying in their seats.

A minute later, he's off again, dancing away to gather up more audience members.

processed_IMG_20190920_193254.jpg

He returns with two ladies. They sit in the front row too. There's one space left.

It does not get filled.

The man indicates something to the tech person. Close the door. Even I manage to understand that gesture. But the tech person doesn't, and it's left to our performer to dance off to the door, close it, and switch off the house lights.

Right, we're ready to begin.

The man is Tunji Joseph. It's his play. He wrote it. White board: Back pieces: Race in the west.

That's a lot of punctuation for a title.

But the show is slick and moves at a fast clip through stories and anecdotes and questions, and an attempt at some of the answers. What it is to be black in a white world. How it messes with self-perception and even something as fundamental as desire.

Joseph tells a story about being a student at ArtsEd (the group in the front row whoop - so we all know where they studied) and having to go on dates with classmates while in character. About being attracted to one the white girl he was out with. About getting a nod from a fellow black man in the restaurant and not knowing the meaning of the nod.

Joseph brings out a tennis ball and shows it to us.

Going over to the front row, he shows it to the guy sitting on the aisle. "What colour is this?" Joseph asks.

"Light green?" chances the guy on the aisle.

Joseph is horrified. Light green? That is literally the wrongest answer that ever wronged.

He looks around and spots me. Oh dear.

Making his way into the second row he holds out the tennis ball. "What colour is this?"

Well, if light green is super duper wrong. Then I'm going to go for the exact opposite. "Red?"

Nope.

"Does no one know what this is?" cries out Joseph, clearly distressed.

No one does.

And we get to the end of the show without ever finding out.

Joseph announces there will be a short break, and then we'll have having a Q&A to discuss the process and whatnot.

I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the Q&A. The whole "more of a comment than a question” thing doesn't really do it for me. I'm sure, out there, in the world, exists someone who asks interesting questions, but I've never heard one. I suspect the type of person who does have interesting things to ask, isn't the sort to stay behind after a show to ask them.

But I stay. I'm fairly confident that I'm the only person here who doesn't know the playwright, and I think it'll be a teensy bit obvious if I step out now.

A woman in the from row raises her hand. "This isn't a question, it's more of a statement..."

Oh gawd...

After a few more statements, and reminisces about the good old days at ArtsEd, we get to the first real question.

"What audience did you imagine? Who did you write this for?"

I sit forward. Now this I find interesting. Because this audience is hella white, and not at all what I pictured when I booked this show.

This marathon has taken me to all sorts of places and all sorts of shows. I've been in plenty of audiences where my whiteness put me in the minority, and even one where I was the only white person in the building apart from the staff, and I've always tried to take this into consideration. Sitting at the back, not taking space away from the people the show was created for. You know. I'm doing my best over here not to be an arsehole. Me doing this marathon shouldn't be getting in the way of someone seeing their art.

So the whiteness of the room I'm sat in, is surprising.

Joseph is more accepting though. "Theatre audiences are white and middle class," he says with a shrug after admitting we weren't quite the crowd he was going for.

"If you can stay, I'll see you in the bar in a few minutes," says Joseph and we all make our way out.

Well, apart from the few kind souls who offer to stay behind and tidy up the chairs.

ArtsEd should be proud.

Me on the other hand, I'm got a tram I need to not get caught by.

The Voice of God is lost in Hell

After whinging and complaining about the ticket prices at the Hampstead Theatre when I was here last time, I’m back, in the main house, and the somewhat proud owner of a fully bought and paid for ticket. And only twenty-five quid, which, while not exactly a bargain, is definitely on the right side of almost reasonable.

Anyway, it’s the first production in the new AD’s first season. And Roxana Silbert has programmed a play with a title so striking, I just had to book myself in: The King of Hell’s Palace. I mean, come on. That sounds really me, doesn’t it?

As I step through the glass doors, I instantly feel ten years younger. I have a spring in my step and am filled with the joyous optimism of youth. It’s very disconcerting.

I try to enjoy it. It’s not often that I, being in my… don’t make me say it… mid-thirties now, get to be the youngest person in the room. But bar a few shiny-looking ushers, I am a mere child in comparison to the rest of tonight’s crowd.

I bounce my way over to the box office counter, side-stepping to avoid a very elderly man who is shuffling past at such a lilt I’m fearful he won’t make it to the other side.

Thankfully, we both make it to our destinations, and I give the nearest box officer my name, and he pulls the Ss free from the ticket box.

“Can you just confirm your postcode?” he asks.

I can. And do.

processed_IMG_20190919_191417.jpg

He unfolds the ream and inspects it. “You’ve got a programme voucher,” he says, tearing it free. This is news to me, I must have felt ballin’ when I bought this ticket. Still, it saves me fifty pee, and three quid isn’t bad at all for the hefty programme he hands me with a cheerful “here you go!”

“You’re entering through door number one,” he goes on, pointing to the doorway at the end of the gangway just next to us. It is indeed marked with a huge number one. Two number ones, actually. One handing down from the ceiling, and another affixed to the wall. This doorway isn’t shy about showing it’s dominance.

I get out my phone to take a photo and one of those shiny young ushers freezes just as she was about to step into my shot.

“It’s okay,” I tell her.

She dithers, not wanting to ruin my photo.

“Really, it’s fine,” I assure her, waving her across. And with that, she belts her way across the walkway, diving through the premiere door in order to keep the inconvenience of her presence to a minimum.

Bless.

processed_IMG_20190919_191404.jpg

I have a flick through of the programme. They’ve changed since I was here last. Paper is thicker, and uncoated. The binding is perfect rather than saddle stitched. This place has upped its game. The programmes look well fancy now.

One of the box officers calls over a front of house. She has a radio. I’m thinking we’ve got a duty manager in the vicinity.

“Can you tell the voice of god to announce the house is open?” asks the box officer.

The suspected duty manager duly makes the request and a few seconds later…

“The house is now open,” comes god’s voice over the sound system. “May I remind you…” but the rest of her message to us mortals is lost in the hubbub of the foyer. I just hope I remember whatever we needed to be reminded of.

I decide to go in before I forget anything else.

Down the gangway that takes me right over the foyer of the downstairs theatre, past the side of the curved hull of the theatre, and through door one.

There’s a ticket checker in here.

“First row of this section, just up the stairs,” he says, indicating the way.

I follow his directions, going up the short series of steps that take me towards the back of the stalls.

It's like a mini balcony back here. Slightly raised from the rest of the stalls, and yes, I'm in the front row of it - contained behind a dividing wall.

"'Scuse me. Sorry. Do you mind?" I say as I inch my way through to my seat.

An older man, looks up at me as I approach. "Are you...?" He points to the empty space next to him.

"No," I tell him. "I'm a bit further on. Sorry," I had as he disgruntedly gets to his feet.

In my seat I get down to the business of getting play-ready. Jacket off. Glasses on. Check my phone...

"There must be a way to knock them out," says the old man's wife, giving me some serious side-eye. "Theatres should do something. Stop the signal."

"Phones are always going off," agrees the old man.

I roll my eyes. My phone is on silent. It's been on silent since 2007. No one under the age of fifty has a ringtone nowadays.

But nice to know that I'm sitting next to people that would rather theatres indulge in illegal phone jamming then put up with the odd noise from someone who never managed to convince their grandkids how to change the settings on their phone.

I put my phone on airplane mode and shove it away in my bag.

processed_MVIMG_20190919_192706.jpg

I have a bloody good view of the stage. Almost in the middle and with no heads blocking the way. I can see the whole stage. Even the thrusty bit sticking out into the stalls. There's a travellator there. No, wait. There are two travellators there, running all the way to a pair of doors at the back of the set. I'm not sure about this. I've seen my fair share of travellators on stage before. It's almost never good news. Still, I've got some excellent legroom here. Lots of it. Time to get comfy.

I lean back and wriggle my shoulders. Hmm. No, that's no right. I pull my jacket free from behind me, shove it under my seat, and try again.

Yeah. No. There's still something there.

I shift forward and look behind me.

Sticking out of the back of the seat is what I can only describe as a bolster cushion. It juts out, like the arch support of an orthopaedic shoe. I can only imagine its existence is designed to sit within the small of the back, but my spine does not want to conform. I try again, first sitting up really tall, and then slouching back down, trying to work out whether I am too short or too tall for the anatomy of these seats. Neither seems to work. There is clearly something very wrong with my backbone.

Too late to worry about it now. The play is starting. We're flung back in time. To the 90s. In China. After making it through the Great Famine, everyone is determined to make it rich. The peasants are selling their plasma, and the city-folk are more than happy to buy it. Even if they don't have enough centrifuges in the clinics to keep all the blood separate before pumping it back into bodies.

In a fit of dancing exuberance, a red baseball cap goes flying into the audience. During the interval, a front-rower retrieves it, laying it carefully on the thrust part of the stage so that it can be retrieved by a stage manager.

processed_MVIMG_20190919_202902.jpg

My neighbour returns and immediately gets her phone out. I consider making a comment about how theatres really should do something about blocking signals within the auditorium, but I'm tired, and I finally managed to find a position in this seat where the back cushion isn't trying to paralyse me.

She puts it away, and the second act starts.

A fever is spreading. But it can't be AIDS. AIDS doesn't exist in China, And it's illegal to say otherwise.

But the peasants are growing peonies. My absolute favourite flower. And there are thousands of them. In all the colours. Covering the stage with their blooms until it starts to look like a Pina Bausch performance.

I think I'm in heaven.

Or hell. I can't tell.

When Yin Yin's husband unpacks her suitcase, and finds five whole bottles of sriracha, well, I have never felt so seen. I wouldn't be fleeing the country without an adequate supply of the hot stuff either.

We make it through to the end, and not a single phone rings. Not even mine.

Turns out you can trust the masses to think for themselves. Sometimes.

Red Mask, Gold Shoes

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

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

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

Well, more fool her because it does count.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I carry on walking.

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

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

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

So, it really does exist.

I go in.

There’s a staircase leading down.

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

processed_IMG_20190917_191050.jpg

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

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

Oh.

Okay.

Um.

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

So much for intuition.

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

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

I suppose I should probably go in there.

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

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

processed_IMG_20190917_191737.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I dither, trying to decide what I should do.

processed_IMG_20190917_191159.jpg

Exactly on cue, the door opens.

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

“Yeah… umm… where’s the box office?”

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

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

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

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

“Is it open yet?”

“No.”

“Okay…”

“We’ll let you know…”

“Right.”

Again, the awkward silence.

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

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

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

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

Before I fall asleep, I check the time.

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

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

I wait.

A few minutes later she's back.

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

I keep an eye on the flow of people.

Mostly men, jouneying to the Gents.

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

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

This time, she does not come back.

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

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

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

I give him my name.

"You paid, right?"

I did indeed.

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

"Yes?"

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

He points to the bank of seating behind me.

"This side is probably best," he advises.

Well, I'm always one to follow advice.

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

It's fate.

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

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

"Do you mind?"

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

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

processed_IMG_20190917_192754.jpg

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

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

So, that worked out well.

processed_IMG_20190917_192800.jpg

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

It's a freesheet.

I'd completly missed them.

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

Yup. Turns out that they are completly free.

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190917_192845.jpg

It's too dark to read it now anyway.

The house lights have extinguished.

It's 7.33pm.

The box officer switches off the light on his counter.

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

We sit, waiting in the darkness.

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

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

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

It's time for the play to start.

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

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

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

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

Faith, Hope & Cold Chips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foyer is empty.

processed_IMG_20190916_182113.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190916_182445.jpg

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

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

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

She sure can!

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

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

processed_IMG_20190916_182721.jpg

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

It smells… really good.

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

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

“Yeah, I really want chips.”

“Then let’s get chips then!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly. Can’t get the staff these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190916_192509.jpg

Right. Time to go in.

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190916_192921.jpg

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

The lights dim.

The play begins.

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

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

Boom!

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

Boom!

Lights are back up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicki points someone out to me. A playwright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly Fire

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190907_193209.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I better get out of here. 

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

processed_IMG_20190907_193324.jpg

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

A front of houser rushes the other way. 

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

Well, alright then. 

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

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

It’s a dog. 

A very beautiful dog. 

An Alsatian. 

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

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

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

I look back down at the dog. 

They are wearing a service dog harness. 

That settles it. 

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

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

Third row. At the end. 

No, wait. That’s too far away. 

Third row. In the middle. 

Perfect. 

processed_MVIMG_20190907_193739.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

They are very actively not watching the play. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And way too gone for anyone else not to notice. 

Even the actors. 

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

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

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

There’s a cheer from the other side. 

The lads lapse into silence. 

For a few seconds. 

My neighbour leans over to his mate to say something. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least they turned up. 

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

processed_IMG_20190907_211258.jpg

Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When does it start?"

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

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

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

"Hello!" says the box officer.

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

"What's the first name?"

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

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

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

"Of course!" she says.

So I do.

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

processed_IMG_20190831_193012.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

I go back to my fancy freesheet.

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

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

A bloke standing near me is talking about the protests.

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

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

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

I better get myself in it.

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

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

As set ups go, it's not great.

processed_IMG_20190831_192501.jpg

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

The lady with the scooter inches herself through.

We all shuffle dutifully out if the way.

The house opens, and the queue begins to move.

Slowly.

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

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

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

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

It's my turn.

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

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

Through a door and into a dark corridor we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yeah, sorry," comes the reply.

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

The house lights dim.

The play starts.

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

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

And I can see why Helen liked it.

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

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

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

He wants out.

And there isn't room to escape.

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

An usher follows him out the door.

A few minutes later, the play ends.

So that was pointless.

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

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

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

It's late now. And dark.

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

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

The big thoughts shatter.

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

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

processed_IMG_20190831_205709.jpg

Theatre Surveillance

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

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

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

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

A Very Expensive Poison.

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

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

Time for a bag check.

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

Up the short steps, and in I go.

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

processed_IMG_20190828_190043.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190828_190209.jpg

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

I think that’s where I’m going.

There are two people standing on the door.

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

What? Again?

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

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

Both are approved and I’m allowed in.

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

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

And a stack of programmes.

I definitely want to get me one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And A Very Expensive Poison has pink.

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

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

I go into the auditorium.

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190828_190413.jpg

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

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

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

Well, okay. Not sure what to do now.

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

I really want to take a photo of it.

Can I take a photo of it?

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

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

I risk it. And snap a photo.

processed_IMG_20190828_191953.jpg

I look around furtively to make sure no one saw.

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

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

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

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

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

They're making me nervous.

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

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

I hate him.

The lights dim. The red curtains rise.

And the play begins.

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

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

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

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

I’ll say no more. I'm very discreet.

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

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

It's not easy for her though.

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

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

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

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

I go outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others decide to fulfill their interval needs elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still… rude.

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

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

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

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

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

This is a long play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I should really go join them.

processed_IMG_20190828_222154.jpg

54 Block Pickup

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

Ah.

Okay, I see it now.

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

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

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

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

Shit.

Oh well.

No time to think on that. Literally no time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190825_185756.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190825_185804.jpg

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

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

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

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

I sit down carefully.

I think we're safe.

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

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

processed_IMG_20190825_185919.jpg

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

I respect that.

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

Own your titles.

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

I need to pick one.

I go with the fan.

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

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

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

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

A woman sitting near me giggles as she watches them.

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

Perhaps she's drunk too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackout.

Tale complete.

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

Someone comes over to speak to my neighbour.

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

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

I put my fan away. Job done I think.

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

processed_IMG_20190825_201307.jpg

Holding out for a heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I follow their lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ew.

I turn my attention to the decoration.

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

processed_MVIMG_20190819_192257.jpg

The rest of the space is filled with chairs.

And almost every single one of them is taken.

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

"Yeah!" she cries out enthusiastically.

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

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

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

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

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

It's all rather sweet.

And impressive.

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

processed_MVIMG_20190819_192154.jpg

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

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

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

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

The house lights go down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never have I felt so much love in a room.

It's intoxicating.

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190819_201404.jpg

Wash Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190816_175649.jpg

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

Which is to say: nothing.

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

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

I press on, walking round towards the entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, alright then.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_175917.jpg

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

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

The dog sighs contentedly.

They look super comfy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shame!" calls back one of the marqueers.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_182637.jpg

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

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

Underneath, a gentle camaraderie forms between the marqueers.

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

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190816_182852.jpg

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

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

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

The family decide to call it quits.

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

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

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

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

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

The stage manager reappears.

It isn't looking good.

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190816_183006.jpg

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

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

We applaud right back.

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

Time to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going extinct

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

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

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

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

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

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

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

I go in.

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

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

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

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

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

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

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

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

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

Well then.

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

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

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

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

I angle it to face me.

processed_MVIMG_20190812_190249.jpg

"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190812_191533_1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

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

The door is closed.

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

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

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

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

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

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

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

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

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

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

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

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

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

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

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

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

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

We both jump.

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

processed_IMG_20190812_191659.jpg

The lights flicker again. And go out.

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

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

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

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

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

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

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

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

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

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

It's the only explanation.

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

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

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

I'm still not convinced.

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

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

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

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

Something feels off.

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

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

Bloody Russian bots.

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

The DeLorean in the Basement

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

So I didn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_IMG_20190810_185137.jpg

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

I guess that's where I'm heading.

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

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190810_184615.jpg

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

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

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

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

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

processed_IMG_20190810_193253.jpg

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

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

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

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

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

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

Except, there wasn't any signage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... I wear black.

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

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

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

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

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

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

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

When we get to me, I give my name.

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

It really is dark down here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a small room. Tiny.

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

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

Behind are rows of chairs.

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

processed_IMG_20190810_185532.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

processed_MVIMG_20190810_185623.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

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

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

I leave.

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

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

processed_IMG_20190810_195913.jpg