Behind the Pink Elephant

I have two thoughts as I make my way down to the Blue Elephant Theatre. Firstly, that it was a lot further south than I had anticipated. A lot further south. I thought it was close to Elephant & Castle tube, but I passed that ten minutes back and I’m still going. The other is that it after all this walking, it better bloody be blue. I’m willing to accept that my fantasies of it being shaped like an actual elephant may not come to pass, but a lack of blueness is will be unbearable.

“Watch it,” shouts a cyclist as he screams past me on the pavement.

Fucking hell. The cyclists of south London are intense. Only been here half an hour and that’s the third one who seems intent on murdering me.

I pick my way across the road carefully, checking both ways at least three times.

South London be dangerous, y’all.

Can’t even stroll down a pavement without… wait. Where am I?

The shops and bustling high street have fallen away behind me. I’m alone. Standing in what looks to be very residential area. Is there really a theatre here?

I check my phone. According to the theatre’s website, it should be just around this corner - opposite the large block of flats.

I turn the corner, feeling more than a little doubtful about the whole thing. Not being in the shape of an elephant was one thing. Not existing at all was quite another. I’d go as far as to say that I’d be quite upset if, after walking all the way from Islington, the Blue Elephant turned out to be, well, a pink elephant.

Thankfully, it’s not a drunken hallucination, because there it is, and… while not completely blue, there are definitely some blue elements. Doors and shutters and the swinging sign are all painted a very lickable shade of azure blue. And even better, the sign has the model of an elephant in it.

A family walk past, the little girl bouncing along in a Disney-print onesie.

“The theatre’s open today!" she shouts, excitedly pointing towards the building.

Her mum doesn’t seem impressed. They are running late. There is no time for possibly-non-existent theatres.

I’m running late too. I should go pick up my ticket.

It’s even bluer inside. Doors in that tasty azure shade are everywhere, surrounded by a more tasteful navy blue.

A (blue) sign points the way to the box office. Left, and up the stairs.

Not that I can go up them. There’s a couple of young ladies picking up ticket, and the three of us are taking up what little room there is on the few steps that separate the entrance from the landing that is serving as the box office.

They have one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall windows, but the space looks so small that the person serving is hanging out in the doorway, leaning into the office and the landing and back again, without moving his feet, as he processes the two woman.

By the sounds of it, they’re getting free tickets. Some sort of initiative for locals. Which I would be totally in favour of if it were not for the fact that my local theatre doesn’t seem to do these things.

Oh well.

Finally, it’s my turn.

“The surname is Smiles,” I say.

“Smiles! I remember the name ‘Smiles’,” he says, beaming. I laugh. I’m used to the reaction my name gets, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it every time it happens.

His finger runs down the list. “Ah, Max. Of course.”

Of course.

He hands me an admission pass. Laminated and a bit worn looking, but it’s large, and blue, and most importantly, it has an elephant on it.

“And your programme,” he says, handing me what is very clearly a freesheet. “The bar is upstairs.”

Up the stairs I find more blue doors. These ones with stickers of elephants on them. A pink elephant on the left. And a blue elephant on the left. The blue elephant has a moustache and a bowtie. The pink elephant has a flower tucked behind its ear. A presume this display gender-normative elephant-accessories is meant to indicate loos lurking on the other side of the doors.

I decide not to investigate further.

More stairs. And there’s the bar. It a nice room. Packed full of little tables covered in mismatched table-clothes. There’s a table over by the far side, and low stools around the perimeter. It’s saved from looking cramped by the high vaulted ceiling. The angled beams are painted deep navy blue.

And there are elephants. They’re hiding all over the place. One behind the bar. Another hanging from one of the beams.

I’m in serious danger of finding myself playing a game of hunt-the-elephant, so I go to sit down, picking a table covering in a sparkly tablecloth. I’m in that kind of mood.

The bar begins to fill up.

Everyone seems to know everyone else. I begin to wonder if I’m the only person here who actually bought her way in.

A woman walks over to the table behind me. “We’re starting a little bit late,” she says to them. “There are still, like, seven people not here. I don’t know who they are, but they’re on the list.”

Yeah, that’s the problem with free tickets. It’s very easy not to turn up when you’ve got one. It takes a financial commitment not to succumb to the lure of Netflix.

It’s well past eight now. I’m starting to get a little worried about the length of my journey home.

“Welcome to the Blue Elephant for the first night of Justice, taking place in the theatre downstairs,” says a woman, who has clearly also got home-time on the brain and wants to get this show rolling. She runs through a serious of warning: haze, depictions of sexual violence. “And, errr, one thing I’ve forgotten.” She pauses, trying to remember the last thing on the list.

“Nah,” calls out someone else. “That’s about it.” She turns to everyone else in the bar. “Sorry if there was something else.”

Everyone whoops and staggers to their feet. Ah. Not locals then. But mates of the cast. I’m sure of it. No one is that enthusiastic about theatre unless they know someone involved. Not even when the tickets are free.

But they are not making for the stairs. They have one more thing to get sorted before they go into the auditorium.

As one, they head towards the bar.

Definitely friends of the cast.

Back down the stairs. Past the pink vs blue loos. Past the boxy corner office. Past the entrance. And on to the theatre.

“Amazing,” says the guy from the box office, who is now on ticket checking duty. He takes my admission pass and I go in.

There’s a single bank of seating. Raked. The stage is at floor level. It’s covered in chairs. Both lined up down the sides in a way that sets my teeth on edge (actors sitting on the side of the stage in scenes that are not their own is a trope that went from being pretentious to hackneyed decades ago), but also piled up on the floor, and hanging from the rig. And there, along the back wall, is a tower of broken chairs, with looks like it has more than a passing nod towards the Iron Throne.

We’re not in Westeros anymore, Dumbo.

I ignore the chairs. I’m much more interested in the cushions.

Small. Fluffy. And lined up on the benches.

It looks like I’m in for a comfy evening.

Or a very uncomfy one. Depending on what they are covering up.

I squeeze myself down to the end of a row, so that I can lean against the metal bars on the end.

Now that I’ve sat down I can see that the rake isn’t all that great, and I am super pleased that no one is sitting directly in front of me.

As soon as I have that thought, the theatre gods intervene. The guy from the box office comes in. He looks around for a spare seat before deciding to ease himself down the full length of a row, and sit directly in front of me.

Now, I’m sure he had his reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years of theatre going, in my 120+ theatre trips this year alone, in thousands of shows, seen a front of houser sit anywhere that didn’t have easy access to the aisle.

And usually the one closest to the exit.

You know, to facilitate matters in the event of an evacuation, or, I don’t know, help an audience-member if they need help finding the pink loos.

He hoikes his elbow onto the back of the bench, and settles in.

I just pray there isn’t a fire.

The play is about knife crime. Or possibly the outrage of stop-and-search. Inequality in education. The ineffectiveness of the police. Class, maybe. Race, definitely.

The company is young. Very young. And they are trying super hard.

It’s rather sweet.

And wow, I’m super patronising.

Oh well. I’m sure they’ll go far as long as they ignore the bitter old trolls, like me.

At the curtain call, one of the cast members steps forward. They are raising money for Steel Warriors, a charity that melts down knives and builds playgrounds. They are asking for any spare change to be dropped in buckets as we leave.

Another cast member steps forward. “I’m supposed to talk about Wooden Arrow now,” he says, referring to their plays producers and looking very embarrassed about it.

Half the audience explode into laughter. No doubt the half that make up Wooden Arrow.

He goes through a short spiel, and looks very relieved when he reaches the end of it.

It time to go.

It’s still light outside. And warm. The perfect evening. Which I will spend trapped underground as I take the long journey home.

Read More

Feeling salty

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre

 

I’m on my way to Sloane Square. I’m walking because I never learn my lesson on this. I’m in that funny hinterland between The Mall and Eaton Square, were all the buildings look like they are being kept as doll’s houses for a series of life-size and creepily realistic, mannequins. They’re all too large and ornate to real.

I cross a road, and behind me I hear a whistle.

As in an actual whistle. The type blown by the games teachers in my nightmares.

It chirrups. Like a bird that only knows two notes. Once. And then again. Followed a few seconds later by a repeat performance.

I turn around just as a police motorcycle squeezes out from between the traffic, twisting around, and stopping right in the middle of the crossing. The officer puts out their hands, stopping the traffic.

We all wait, me and the cars, to see what happens.

A truck emerges, pulling a car behind it.

In the distance, I hear sirens.

Oo. That must have been one hell of an accident.

The truck and its XXX pass through.

A motorbike emerges from the other side of the road.

The police offer blows on their whistle with an angry chirrup, and raises their gloved hand to point accusingly at the motorbike.

The motorbike slows to a stop. I can almost see the rider’s embarrassment as he receives his telling off through the medium of hand gestures.

They’re not letting anyway go. We’re stuck, as surely as if the road had been covered in treacle. Waiting for the chirrupy whistle to release us.

Just as I decide that if I don’t get a move on I’m going to be late for my play, other bike putters into the crossing. Followed by a car. A very fancy car. A car with a flag on the bonnet. A diplomatic flag. Wait, no. Not diplomatic flags. Those are royal flags. I’m not fan enough of the monarchy to be able to tell you which one, but it had a lot of yellow and there was definetly a XXX in that vehicle. It’s followed closely by a rather more pedestrian looking minivan, with a small crest on the door, and a panda car.

I turn around to leave.

On my right, I hear a strange clank. I look over. The bus driver is opening is window.

“That’s the closest we’ll ever get to that,” he calls over to me.

I laugh, and he wrestles the window closed again before moving on.

I head in the other director. Towards the Royal Court.

The show in the main house has already gone in. Box office is empty.

I give my name to one of the ladies sitting behind the counter.

“Is this for Salt?” she asks.

It is.

“We're trialling e-tickets today,” she continues breezily, as if this statement were not an attack on everything I stand for. “So they'll be waiting for you upstairs to be swiped in.”

I stare at her, unable to formulate a response that isn’t laden with either swearwords or desperate, tear-filled pleas.

“Right,” I manage at last.

“It’s on the fourth floor. Up the stairs.”

Four floors. That’s a long time to mull things over. I make my way up them slowly, unsure what to make of this whole thing. The Royal Court, the Royal fucking Court, has fallen victim to the plague of e-tickets. If even the Royal fucking Court cannot withstand this onslaught, what hope is there of getting a proper ticket at a fringe venue? Is this it? Is this the end of the printed ticket?

2019. The year I attempted the London Theatre Marathon. The year of the Ticketpocolapse

By the time I hit the balcony level, I’m feeling a little wobbly. Some might say that this is due to climbing three flights of stairs after a three mile walk across the city, but I know better.

This is the end.

Once printed tickets have gone, it’s only a matter of time before programmes go the same way.

Result: unemployment, hardship, debt, penury, death.

The Royal Court is literally killing me here.

The queue has already curled its way down from the top floor. I only need to go up a few steps from the balcony to reach it.

I lean against the wall, trying to get my breath back.

I am really, very, upset about this.

“Does this work for press tickets?” someone in the queue below me asks a passing usher.

“Just give your name. They have a new system.”

“Yes, but does it work for press tickets?”

“It’s just a list on the door.”

Printed tickets banished in favour of a list on the door. My heart withers inside of me.

A new group joins the queue. A blonde woman who I immediately take to be their spokesperson leans around the balustrade to get a good look up the stairs. “This trial doesn’t seem to be going very well,” she says.

I want to tell her that it is always like this for the upstairs theatre. That the queue grows and grows, making its way down the stairs like a tangled slinky until moments before the start time, when the doors and opened, and we are allowed to trudge our way up the final steps.

The queue starts moving, and we trudge those final steps.

The stairs narrow, and get darker. The only lights the ones illuminating the display or red and yellow Royal Court posters back from before they invented blue.

“It’s a bit dangerous isn’t it?” someone puffs behind me.

There’s a landing at the top of the stairs. A small foyer where we can catch our breath and deal with the ticket checker.

He has a tablet. The screen is Spektrix green. The same set-up used by the Vaults.

Is this it? Is this what I fought and died for? To be sent away from an empty box office, in order to queue in the dark, and get my name ticked up on a slightly clunky booking system beloved by small venues?

Look, I get this is only a trial. And a Monday, when tickets at the Royal Court are sold on the day, is as good a time as any to trial this. But come on. This is a nonsense. Don’t disband a queue from a location set up to deal with it, and put it upstairs in a poky room with no space for this sort of thing, forcing people to wait way longer than they should, on the fringgin’ stairs.

I get my name checked off and pick up a castsheet from the display on the wall. I don’t see any programmes for sale. Which is odd, as there is usually a playtext going.

Oh well.

I go in, keen to see what configuration they’ve got going on up here today.

Turns out, it’s a bog-standard rake. But I’ve not paying attention to that. I’m too busy staring at the goggles. Actual goggles. Of the kind worn by GCSE chemistry teachers across the land.

They’re on the seats. Placed ready and waiting for the occupents. But only on the first two rows.

A few brave theatre goers are already wearing them on their heads, and looking way cooler than I could ever hope to emulate.

I decide to sit further back.

Whatever projectiles are flying tonight, I want no part of it.

“The rule is, when I am wearing my goggles, you wear yours,” says XXX as the show starts.

That’s a good rule.

XXX tells the tale of a journey. A retracing of the steps of the ancestors of the play’s writer Selina Thompson. The slave ships that would have taken them from Ghana to Jamaica. Of the racism that still exists on these routes. That still exists everywhere. The opposing forces of home and history. The blood that has soaked into the stones of Europe.

And I can’t help but think of the traffic being stopped to make way for the unknown royal. And the pristine buildings of Eaton Square, kept up and maintained even though the sit empty with darkened windows. And the bus driver’s comment: “That’s the closest we’ll ever get to that.”

The visible evidence of an intangible wrong. Untouchable because of words like tradition, and history, and culture. Unmoveable because they have existed for centuries, their foundations sinking ever deeper into the earth.

And then the sledgehammer comes out. She slips her goggles on. The people in the first two rows follow her lead.

XX pounds on the salt, her blows attacking the men on the ship, and the forces that govern them. Crushing them each into dust. But also crushing herself. Everyone compressed under this terrible force, but the people at the bottom of her list, they are the ones who receive the most blows.

“XXX”

The queue to leave pushes back right into the theatre. I find myself standing on the stage, looking at the shrine XXX built on the table. Shoes. A wreath. Salt.

I try and step back. It feels wrong somehow, to be standing so close to something that feels so personal.

There’s no where to go. I turn my shoulder, as if to offer the shrine some privacy.

From this new angel, I spot something. From beyond the crowd, there is the red flash of an usher’s polo shirt. And in her hands…

“Can I get a playtext?” I ask, finally managing to inch my way towards her.

“Four pounds, please.”

“I only have a twenty…”

Turns out that’s fine. Because she has exactly sixteen pounds left in her money bag. She counts out the pound coins into my palm, just to double check.

My purchase seems to have started a run on playtexts, because I hear someone else asking about them as I rejoin the queue.

“How much are the programmes?”

“Four pounds, but I’m afraid I don’t have any change.”

Ooops. My bad.

I slink away in shame, my feet shuffling as the queue moves forward.

XXX is sitting out in the small foyer. As promised, she holds a basket.

A young woman is turning over the pebbles of salt, trying to find one she likes. “I feel bad taking a big one,” she says.

“Don't worry we crush it every night,” says XXX.

I smile to myself. She definitely crushed it.

It’s the guy in front’s turn at the basket. And he’s also a cautious fellow, digging through the basket to locate a small one.

“Well I'm gonna take a big bit,” I announce when I get to the basket. If one is going to be greedy, one might as well be blatant about it.

“Go for it,” says XXX, cheerfully.

So I do.

It weighs heavy in the pocket of my 49er, dragging down one side of my jacket as I make my way back down four flights of stairs and out through the side door that will take me to Sloane Square station.

On the train, I take it out and look at it. It’s pink, and covers my fingers with a dusting of powder. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I have plenty of theatre treasures tucked away in storage boxes. I listed them some of them in a post not so long ago. But this is different. This isn’t a prize. It’s a monument. A testimony. The intangible made tangible. And better than any fucking ticket.

Read More

Demon Theatre of Fleet Street

I thought I was well past the point where I was able to shock my coworkers with my theatre-going, but the expression on their faces as I wrap my scarf around my neck and breezily say that I'm just popping out to watch a play tells me that I've hit a new low.

Turns out, slipping into an empty seat at the back to catch the matinee in your own theatre is one thing, but running down to Bridewell Theatre in order to squeeze a short play into your lunch break is quite another.

Oh well. Doesn't matter. I'm already halfway down Farringdon Street and too out of breath to worry about my rapidly deteriorating reputation in the office.

I haven't been to the Bridwell Theatre before, but I've seen the signs for it, so I'm not entirely surprised when I step out of the smog of grey suits on Fleet Street and into a quiet little side-street that looks like it's pitching itself as a location for this Christmas' glossy Dicken's adaptation.

Two ladies chat outside the front door to the theatre, but apart from that, it's entirely deserted.

I'm guessing lunch-time theatre can't really compete with M&S sandwiches in the life of a city worker.

I'm up for it though. A 45-minute play in the middle of the day sounds great. It's just a pity that this place is too far from my work for me to ever justify coming here outside of my marathon. Best make the most of it.

Huh. This place is not nearly as exciting looking inside. After a brief interlude involving floor to ceiling tiling, those old Victorian stones have given way to white walls and grotty floors.

But no matter. There's a good old fashioned hole-in-the-wall box office. It even has a circular speaker thing set into the glass. The metal surround is inscribed with the directive to: SPEAK HERE. I do, giving my surname, and I'm handed a small entrance token in exchange.

They are small. And laminated. There's a picture of a sandwich on the front (cucumber on wholemeal) and a poorly hyphenated set of terms and conditions on the back. I'm disappointed. Somehow I had got into my head that the Bridewell was connected to the printing industry, but I couldn't imagine any proper printer producing this sort of nonsense.

To be fair, that connection may exist nowhere outside of my own fuzzy memories, and no be based on anything even approaching reality. In which case, the tokens are just fine. And cucumber sandwiches are totally ace. But like... not on brown bread. Don't be gross, people. No one wants that shit in their lives. It should be white bread or nothing when it comes to cucumbers. And plenty of butter. The good stuff. Yeo Valley, or Kelly Gold if you must.

"The house will open at five to one," says the man behind the window. "We'll ring a bell."

That's only a couple of minutes away. I better start exploring.

I follow the signs down to the bar.

Oh, blimey. That's not what I expected. There I was, traipsing down the white-walled staircase, never knowing that the basement bar was lurking underneath like the Phantom's lair. Bare brick walls. Metal beams holding up curved arches. And there, squatting between the tables like an old man waiting for someone to buy him a pint is, oh my god, is that a printing press?

I fucking love a printing press. I’m always trying to drop hints to our printers that they should invite me around for a tour, but they are doing the absolute mostest to change the conversation to one of paper stock, or types of fold, which I suppose is also good.

I go over to have a proper look at it.

I suppose it could be a printing press. If what you're printing is shirts and by press you mean, wash out the dirt. They're washing machines. I'm in an old laundry.

Oh.

I'm beginning to think I really did imagine the whole printing thing. Which is worrying.

Still, it is nice down here. I do like old machines, even if their purpose is to remove ink rather than print it. I like that you can see how they work. This wheel turns, that cog rotates, then this plate lowers, yadda, yadda, yadda, and your socks are clean!

It's surprisingly busy down here. All the tables are full.

I'm trying to work out how many of these people are here for a sneaky pint during their lunch hour. But none of these people look like the type to work around here.

There's less in the way of suits than I would expect. And far more anoraks than is reasonable.

I feel like I've somehow stumbled group in their pre-meet for a walking tour of the Lake District, rather than a bunch of city workers taking a short rest-bite from their heady day propping up capitalism.

There's a rustle of Goretex as they all stumble to their feet and make towards the door.

They must have heard something I didn't because the queue to get into the theatre is starting and if I don't hurry up and join it, I'm going to be stuck right at the back.

Back up the stairs, through the door by the box office, and via a small foyer taken up by some rather fetching blue curtains, and we're into the theatre.

It's a standard black box, with raked seating, and a rather fantastical lighting rig - meal bars jutting off at all sorts of wonderful angles. Each side of the space is lined with slim metal columns, the type you'd find on an old factory floor. I rather like it.

It takes a while for everyone to settle.

There are considerably more people here than I could ever have expected. Lunchtime theatre is clearly a thing, and I feel like I've been missing out. Someone needs to tell all the pub-theatres in Islington, because I want to get in on this action.

After five months in marathon-mode, even 90-minutes-no-interval is starting to feel like a chore. With a standard 7.30pm start, you're still not getting out before 9pm. And then there's the journey home, and by the time you've got your coat off, put the kettle on, and shoved all the clothes off of your duvet, accomplishing the coveted In-Bed-By-Ten prize is a bit of a challenge. If you ask me (and I'm sure you are), 45 minutes is the perfect length for a play.

I didn't know anything about this one, but with such a short run time, there wouldn't be much room to go wrong.

Even so, Stanley Grimshaw Has Left The Building manages to pack it in: family tensions, false allegations of violence, missed messages, Elvis impersonations, and not one - but two - twists, before the clock runs out. There's even a reverse of the man-sends-his-inconvenient-female-relative-to-the-madhouse trope, which was very pleasing.

I would credit those involved, but there wasn't a freesheet to be found. Which if the Bridewell really did have a connection to the printing industry would be really fucking embarrassing for them.

Now, I have to know - where did I get that idea from?

As I hurry up Farringdon Street on my way back to work, I quickly Google it.

"Housed in a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian building, St Bride Foundation was originally set up to serve the burgeoning print and publishing trade of nearby Fleet Street, and is now finding a new contemporary audience of designers, printmakers and typographers who come to enjoy a regular programme of design events and workshops."

They even have a library dedicated to printing and its associated arts.

Oh, Bridewell Theatre. Dedicated to the print trade and you can't even put together a freesheet. For shame. For shame!

Read More

Bollocks to the Planet

I’m on my second trip to The Pleasance, and I’m on a mission.

You‘d think that after 118 theatre trips since the beginning of the year, I’d have any preciousness knocked out of me, but you’d be well wrong. There are some things I will never get used to not having: tickets and freesheets.

What can I say? I love paper.

Okay, not paper specifically (although, I do love paper. As anyone who has seen my desk at work would know. If you ever want to keep my occupied for a few hours, just drop my in a stationary shop and I’ll be quite content until you come back to drag me away).

I just love have something tangible to take away from an ephemeral experience. Something that I can place carefully in a box, store for years, and then on a sad, wet, Sunday afternoon, open the box, sit on the floor, and take them all out to relive every blissfully painful memory that they conjure up.

Mostly these come in the form of tickets, programmes, and freesheets, but sometimes I get a real score from my trips.

I have a couple of balls from the ball pit in Teh Internet Is Serious Business that accidently fell into my handbag (the fact that I left my bag sitting wide open in the front row is neither here nor there). I have the paper flower I made from the title page of my script in Hamlet (An Experience) (which I’m fairly certain I wasn’t meant to take home with me). I have the West End Company sweatshirt from my days working at Shrek: The Musical (not sure I’m actually meant to have this either). A playing card from Alice’s Adventures Underground. An empty crisp packet from Fatty Fat Fat. A single sequin from Wolfie. Heart-vision glasses from L’elisir d'amore (another thing I wasn’t supposed to take home). Badges from Come From Away and Cursed Child. And probably lots of other stuff that I can’t remember right now.

I’m a hoarder. And Marie Kondo is not welcome in my home.

I just love stuff.

Especially theatre stuff.

On my first trip to this Islington venue, I was offended, outraged, and incensed when I saw other audience members flashing their paper-tickets, with braggadocios swagger, to the ticket checker, while I had the indignity of being beeped through the doors by barcode.

This time, I’m not having it. I’m going to get my hands on a damn ticket.

I time my arrival perfectly.

They have two shows starting at 7.30pm. Mine isn’t until 7.45.

I push my way through the doors at 7.31pm. The first two shows should have cleared by now, meaning I will have plenty of time to plead my case at box office.

Oh. Okay. There’s a bit of a queue. No problem.

When I’d booked to see a show in the StageSpace I’d figured that it was a tiny venue. From my endless browsing of The Pleasance’s website, it looked as if they programmed comedy and whatnot there. Things that don’t require a lot of, well, stage space, and usually have limited seating to match. So when a marathon-qualifying show came up, on a Monday no less, I leapt on it quick-smart. By which I mean I logged it in my spreadsheet and promptly forgot about it until this morning and realised I should probably buy that ticket.

Alas, too late to have it sent to me. But no matter. I was here. I was in the queue. I was going to get that ticket. Or cry trying.

There are signs on the counter saying that the QR code in our confirmation emails will serve as a ticket. I purposely look away from them.

It’s my turn.

I give my name.

“Do you have a confirmation email?” asks the guy on box office.

“Umm,” I say, to fill space as I get out my phone. It’s all a performance. I know damn well that I have a confirmation email.

He clicks away on his computer as I scroll through my email.

“Yes,” I admit, finally giving in.

“You can use the QR code to get in,” he says. “You don’t need a ticket.”

“But I like tickets,” I say, my voice turning into a whine. “I hate QR codes.” You can’t lovingly store a QR code. You can’t alphabetize a QR code. You can’t pet and stroke and touch a QR code.

“We’re saving the planet,” he counters.

“Bollocks to the planet,” I say.

I don’t mean that. Not really. I recycle, when I remember. I don’t own a car, or a cat. I buy vintage clothes. I walk.

But fuck it. Can’t a girl get a ticket?

It’s not like they don’t have them. They can’t plead planet-saving when other people are walking around with the damn things. What does a girl have to do to get her paper-loving hands on one?

The box officer gives me a strained smile. It’s no use. I’ve lost the battle.

I retreat to a spare corner to lick my paper-cuts and feel sorry for myself.

And then I see it. A big yellow machine tucked in next to the box office. A man comes up, sticks his card in, and then a streamer of tickets flies out into his hand.

It’s a ticket machine.

They have a fucking ticket machine. Spurting out tickets. To anyone who wants one.

I look at the box officer. I would have to walk right past him to get to it.

Do I dare?

I waver.

I really want a ticket.

I really don’t want him to see me.

I wimp out.

Of course I do.

I’m a coward.

A useless, ticketless, coward.

The crowds clear. Turns out the house opened late for one of the other shows.

There’s only a few of us left now.

A family try to head up the stairs. A ticket checker glances at their (paper) tickets. “Oh,” he says. “This one hasn’t opened yet. Two or three minutes,” he says, sending them away.

The older lady in the group stays on the stairs.

Her daughter tries to call her down with the promise of a drink, but the older lady shakes her head. She wants to stay. Make sure she’s first in the queue to get in.

“Mum,” says the daughter with a sigh. “You’re not going to miss it. There are like… six people here.”

But the older lady isn’t having it. She begins her slow creep back up the stairs.

Two or three minutes later, the ticket checker returns, and the six people traipse up the stairs towards the StageSpace.

I bring up my confirmation email and get present it for scanning, feeling like a failure.

I go in.

The StageSpace is pretty small. And dark. And kinda looks like a barn. Except smaller and darker.

It has those wooden vaulted beams that you see in fancy barn conversions.

And underneath, standing at the back of the stage, all hulking shoulder and blazing eyed, is... well, I don’t know who that is. I don’t have a freesheet to refer to.

As the show starts, he lumbers forward.

“Hello,” he says.

One person in the front row chances a “hello” back.

He grins. “Thank you,” he says. “Let’s try that again. Hello!”

I sink in my seat, I hate audience participation.

A second character comes out. Her hair is black. Her dress is too. She’s wearing a black velvet clock. I want to bury by face into it. And then snatch it off, before running all the way home. Wearing it.

She poses with a tea light, the tiny flickering light casting shadows across her face. She unfolds herself gently as she readies herself to tell her tale. What to do with the tea light though? She shoves it in the direction of an audience member, who duly relieves her of it.

She begins. Her story is a woeful one. And we are lucky to hear it.

The hulking fellow in the badly fitting suit turns out to be Podrick, and he will be assisting in the telling, playing all the characters in this tale of tragic beginning and eventual triumph. A journey that starts with a baby called Blanche, and ends with our heroine, the great Hertha Greenvail.

“Why do you wear black?” asks Podrick, in the guise of a homeless man the great Hertha meets on the street. He asks it as if the answer wasn’t perfectly obvious. “Is it that you’re frightened people will reject you like your mother did, and so you push them away before they get the chance?”

What the…?

Get out.

Right now. Out. Further out. All the way out. Keep going.

Nope. Not having it.

You’re wrong. So completely wrong, you wouldn’t even be able to fathom just how wrong you are.

Firstly: no. Secondly: how dare you. And thirdly: … look. You’re just wrong.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering to argue this. That’s how wrong you are.

I don’t push people away. I’m not insecure. I don’t fear rejection. It’s not like I’m some kind of useless… ticketless… cow- arghhh.

Hertha comes back on stage.

She’s not Hertha Greenvail. She’s Mia Borthwick. The writer. They’re taking the show up to Edinburgh and…

Oh god. I know this speech.

On cue, Podrick (still don’t know his name) capers out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage with an orange carrier bag from Sainsbury’s.

“Please give us you money,” he says, lumbering up to stairs and plonking himself in the back row, carrier bag open and read to receive funds.

I apologise to him on my way out.

“No, no, no, don’t worry,” he says, so sweetly that I’m immediately plunged into a hole of guilt.

Unfortunately the hole isn’t quite deep enough for me to turn out my purse into his carrier bag, but it’s def there. For sure.

Perhaps The Pleasance could donate the few pennies that they saved by not printing my ticket to them.

Read More

She is risen

I ATEN'T DED.

I know, I know. You were worried. I drop a blog post about being very, very ill and then disappear without another word. I meant to put a banner on the site to let you know that I'm, well, n't ded, like an internet-soaring Granny Weatherwax, but then I realised that if I did actually die, there would be no-one to take the message down, and while I would appreciate the humour of my determined declaration of non-death surviving me until the payment on my domain is due, I figured that the other ghosts might laugh at me, and even worse, attempt to stage an intervention.

So, anyway. I'm not, in fact, dead. I am quite the opposite. I am risen. Like the phoenix, Or the daffodils. Or any other spring-appropriate return-to-life metaphors that you can to think of. And while we all debate whether I am the messiah or a very naughty boy, can I take a moment to say how much I've enjoyed all the responses I've had to my... sickness. Over the past week I've been compared to Mimi from La Boheme, Violetta from Traviata, Marguerite from Marguerite and Armand, and... errr... Satine from Moulin Rouge. And while I revelled in being cast among the canon of sex-workers-dying-from-consumption (who knew it was such a trope?), I'm not sure I belong among those aria-singing delicate creatures. Personally, I see myself more as a Billie Piper in Penny Dreadful, spluttering all over that nice Mr Dorian. Like... it was intense. Blood everywhere. Seriously, I had to have a shower and put on a load of laundry before going to the hospital.

Right, now I've finished my course of antibiotics and thoroughly grossed you all out, it's time to take you with me to the next theatre on the marathon list.: Hampstead Theatre. I do like the Hampstead. Firstly because it requires little more than falling out of Swiss Cottage tube station in order to get to, and secondly because it makes me feel like I'm making a real contribution when I'm there. I swear, I bring down the mean age of the audience by a good decade the second I stumble through the door. It's not often that I get to feel so young and cool, and believe me, I relish every moment of it.

But as I arrive in the foyer, I find it devoid of octogenarians to compare myself to. Devoid of anyone of any age.

The place looks deserted.

One of the lady’s on box office beckons me forwards.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles,” I saw. Her hand is already on the box of tickets and she is flipping through them before I’ve even got the first syllable out.

“What was the name again?” she asks, still riffling through the box.

“This is the final call for Jude,” comes a booming voice over the tannoy.

Ah, that explains the frenzy.

“It’s for The Firm,” I tell her. I thought the information might calm her. The Firm, the play in their smaller, downstairs, theatre, doesn’t start for another 15 minutes. But she barely pauses, thanking me and reaching over for the other ticket box to flick her way through the tickets there.

“Here you go,” she says, unfolding them to check the tickets before handing them over. “You’re downstairs.”

I go down the stairs, passing the great bulbous curves of the main space, which bulge out like the bow of a ship, giving me flashbacks to when I watched Pirates under the hull of the Cutty Sark a few months back.

There’s a large foyer down here, filled with the kind of tables and chairs that make me think I should be in the subsidised cafe of some trendy modern university.

Not one is using them now.

Seating is unreserved and the queue is already stretching from bow to stern.

I push my way through and join the end of it. No wonder the box office lady was so stressed. This queue is massive.

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I managed to make it to one of the Downstairs shows at the Hampstead. Been a while since I was Upstairs, come to think of it. Gosh, when was I last here? Suddenly it comes to me. Gloria. How could I forget that? Best interval cliff-hanger since… well, ever…? I spent the entire interval stumbling around, staring into the distance, and whimpering. That Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one hell of a playwright. I really think he has the potential to go all the way, you know. I pause, trying to conjure the name last Downstairs play I saw, but I’m failing. Perhaps because it didn’t have an interval. Downstairs shows rarely do.

Queue up, sit down, watch a play, then get the hell out. That seems to be the motto of the downstairs space.

Well, I’m sure it was just great, whatever the hell the play was.

The queue is moving.

There’s a sign by the door.

The play is only an hour and a half. No interval.

Ah. Was that good? I can’t tell. Usually that would be good. But now I’ve remembered Gloria and my interval stumbling and I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.

We file through the door, down a very dark corridor, and emerge in what looks like a fancy cocktail bar.

My position at the back of the queue doesn’t seem to have affected my seat selection. There are two banks of benches, arranged at an obtuse angel to each other, and I manage to nab a spot close to the central aisle, in the third row back.

Nice.

I’m well pleased with that.

I’m even more pleased to find a programme on my seat.

I’m said before that a freesheet placed lovingly on the seats for the audience is the sign of a swanky theatre, but the Hampstead being, well, the Hampstead, just have to go one step further and offer up a fully-colour printed, 16 page, full-on programme. The sort I would charge a whole two quid for. And here they are, just lying around, to be picked up. For free.

I go to flick through it, but I don’t get much further than the third page.

“Hampstead Theatre would like to thank RADA for the loan of beer pumps.”

I can’t help it. I laugh.

Bless them. Isn’t that just the must perfect sentence ever committed to paper? How gloriously middle-class. Congratulations to everyone involved. Especially to RADA, for their stock of beer pump props.

Eventually, I manage to move on. But not by much as I find another gem on the centre-fold.

Well done programme-maker of the Hampstead Theatre, whoever you are. And to the playwright, Roy Williams, I suppose. I’m certainly feeling all kinds of damn aches at the moment. In places that I didn’t even know I could ache. And, I know I’m on a marathon and everything, and marathons are notoriously bad on your joints, but I didn’t think that applied to the theatrical variety.

But then, I didn’t think people seriously coughed up blood in this post-industrial revolution, post-slum era of socialised medicine that we live in, and yet here we are, so….

Anyway, you don’t care about that. Just pour me a shot of indulgence for this pity party of mine and let’s move on.

Back to the theatre. And the play. Which is starting now.

Looks like they are getting ready for a party, and not of the pity variety. It’s a welcome home jobby. They even have a banner.

The Firm, in true John Grisham style, is a gang of, Ooo, what shall we call them? Thugs sounds too violent, although there’s plenty of then. But I think the word thug suggests a certain mindlessness to their brutality and there’s nothing mindless about this lot. Everything is thought of, worked over, considered. Words are tested and tasted and thrown around.

Ne'er-do-well, perhaps? Nah, too cutsie. And these blokes aren’t cutsie.

Mobster? Too Godfather. We’re in London not New York.

Gangster then? Very East End circa the 1960s. Very Jez Butterworth’s Mojo.

And it is all very Mojo. With the bar and the gang of… whatever they are. Just… without the mojo.

Shame.

Okay, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s lacking in the grimy glamour of the sixties which is a huge portion of Mojo’s mojo. And the Soho seediness that can never be replicated south of the river, no matter how hard the people of Streatham try.

But it does has that hot guy from Fleabag in it. No, not that one. The other one. The lawyer, not the priest.

So, it does have a little mojo. Just not Mojo levels of mojo.

Not gangster then. Besides, a gang of gangsters is some weak-arse writing. Even for me.

Let’s just move on, shall we?

The man sitting next to me certainly is. He’s not paying attention at all. He’s got his coat over his knees and I can see it moving as he scratches himself underneath.

At least, I hope he’s scratching.

I slide over a little on the bench.

It’s alright. There’s plenty of room.

This is the Hampstead after all. No Finborough-style packing them in over here.

I bump into something.

It’s a handbag, belonging to my other neighbour. She’d placed it rather pointedly between us on the bench when I came to sit next to her. A makeshift wall to divide us. A fencing off of her personal space. I wanted to tell her the show was sold out, and that if it wasn’t me, she’d have someone else sitting here. Put I didn’t. Mainly because I was worried that she would reply that her problem wasn’t with anyone else, but with me, specifically.

Looks like I’m stuck between a bag and a hard… ummm.

Let’s leave that there.

The play’s over anyway.

It takes a while to get out. The seats might be generous, but the audiences of Hampstead Theatre like to take their time, and the gangways are all full as they chatter about the play.

“It was good, but I didn’t understand a word of it,” observes one lady. She must have been a fan of those beer pumps.

Finally, I manage to escape and I make a break for the stairs.

But half-way up I realise something. I stop, blocking the man behind me.

“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m wrestling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to bring up the camera.

There, staggered up the steps, is The Firm’s artwork.

That is such a nice touch. Swish as fuck.

Perhaps that’s way I love the Hampstead.

They do good marketing.

I respect that.

Not sure about their press though. Those bastards wouldn’t give me a ticket. Not for this play. Not that I tried for this play. The ticket was only a fiver, and I feel a bit mean about putting in a request for a ticket that well-priced (plus… free programme. Fucking bargain). I mean for the main house. Rejected. Bastards. And at a whopping cost of thirty-eight quid, I’m going to have to do some serious saving up to get the upstairs space ticked off my list.

Pity about the penicillin. With my bloody cough I could have made a fortune wafting around with a stained hankie…

Read More

One Ring Circus

I’m outside Stratford Circus trying to take a photo of an angel in an upstairs window. I saw angel, but what I mean is a display of angelic looking white wings. And I saw trying, because there is a street cleaner with a trolley coming my way.

I pause, lowering my phone, waiting until he passes.

Except, he's not passing. He's aiming right for me.

I jump backwards, having visions of being run over but a cleaning trolley and having to spend the rest of time haunting the nearest bin. Max the Ground of Theatre Square. Doomed to spend eternity watching people rush excitedly into the neighbouring theatres of Stratford East and Stratford Circus, and never get to see a show. Feeding off the crumbs of gossip and old tickets that they leave behind.

But I didn't get hit. Instead, the trolley stopped. Directly in front of me. Blocking my shot.

Stratford clearly ain’t got time for any of this hipster Instagram nonsense.

Nor had I.

My show this evening has a 7pm start time, and I haven't even picked up my ticket yet.

I extricate myself from behind the trolley and dash across the road towards Stratford Circus. I'm so dazzled by the fluorescent orange banners flapping in the breeze I entirely miss the entrance and have to double back.

It's orange. The same hue as the banners. But with two strip lights set behind a wall of translucent orange plastic, angled to form an arrow that points directly towards the door. Blimey, I must be tired, walking right past this. There's even an A-frame set outside. "Stratford Circus Arts Centre," it reads, for those who need the extra help.

This does not bode well.

Oh well. There's nothing for it. I go inside, go to the box office (orangey-red), and pick up my ticket (not orange), and buy a programme (also not orange. Kinda blue-ish purple actually. And pink).

It's been a while since I last visited Stratford Circus. Years and years now that I come to think about it. So long, that I can't actually remember where the main theatre space is.

I look around.

The main foyer is packed. Mostly full of people queuing up at the bar. There's a staircase right next to the box office, leading up to what seems like an Escher-like series of galleries and mezzanines stretching up to the heavens.

I look up, shading my eyes against the thousands of tiny faerielights set into the ceiling of each level.

There's a big number 3 on the glass high above, with a smaller "Circus" above it. Circus 3. There's a Circus 3? Circus 2 I knew about. That's the studio space. And Circus 1 was where I was heading for. But what's Circus 3? And more importantly, how many circuses are there in this place?

I get out my phone. I have to know.

Theatre websites are surprisingly coy about their spaces. Rarely can you search a list of events by venue, and very often they won't even tell you the space it's in before you get to the booking page. Often I left clicking around, putting random tickets in my basket just to find out which shows are where, and giving box officers across London major headaches as tickets appear and disappear from their system as I do so.

You'd be surprised to know how many secondary studios I've only found out about because I saw a sign for them when I was in the building. Just like I was now.

But there's one place where you kind find this info. And that's the hires page.

I find it.

"Stratford Circus Arts Centre has a range of spaces that are perfect for meetings, live performances, celebration and training events," says the website. Great.

"C1 - Auditorium," reads the first one. That must be Circus 1. I've already got that covered. I move on. "C2 - Studio Theatre," is next. I don't got that covered, but it's on my list, so I'll get to it eventually. Onwards. "C3 - Dance Studio." There it is. Circus 3. It looks nice. "A large and airy rehearsal space with sprung dance floor, mirrors and adjustable blinds; adaptable for a variety of events including classes, rehearsals, workshops and performance." Performance, It's suitable for performance. Shit. Does it need to go on the list? It probably needs to go on the list. Do they programme things there? How do I even check? I mean, apart from the adding random tickets from every single show into my basket...

I quickly close the tab. I'm not going to add it to the list. What I'm going to do it pretend that this never happened, and you are too. And if you even mention the fact that there is a C4 (Multi-purpose space) on the website, I'm going to have to take a course of action that you won't like, and I won't be held responsible for.

Enough of that. I put my phone away and turn around. There appears to be a queue. A very long queue. But this one doesn't lead to the bar. People are looking at their tickets and stuffing the remains of half-eaten sandwiches into their mouths. It looks like we're going in. I find the end of the line and add myself to it. At least the question of where is Circus 1 is not something I have to worry about anymore.

Circus 1, it turns out, is on the ground floor. As is the stage, which is on floor level, leaving a large back of bench seats to rise up from it. There's also a couple of narrow circles above us, but those seem to be closed off.

"This is so cool," someone whispers loudly as we all try to figure out where we want to sit.

They're not wrong. It is pretty cool.

There's a boxing ring set up on the stage, and its surrounded but young people dancing like butterflies and stinging like bees. I find a seat in the middle of the fourth row and try to look like the sort of person who understands boxing.

It doesn't work.

So instead I pull my fan out of my bag and try to cool off. If I'm not going to be someone who looks like they understand or partakes in sport, I might as well embrace it and run full tilt in the other direction. Well, I say run, but perhaps stumble slowly is more my style. Or "adagio walking," as a dance critic once described my prefered level of exertions.

I do kind of like the idea of seeing two people deck each other though. I mean... that's kinda why I wanted to see this. Libby Liburd's Fighter is billed as a play about female boxers fighting for the right to... well, fight. Which I am well into. Just because of my own physical cowardice, doesn't mean that I don't have a hefty appreciation of those that are willing to take a punch in the name of feminism in other people.

And oof, Libby Liburd's Lee is willing to take a punch, both literal and metaphorical. There's no keeping her down.

The clock roles back twenty-one years, and she bounces into Tommy's Gym, shiny new gym back and smart mouth at the ready. Neither of which get her very far in the world of ninety's boxing gyms. Woman have only been allowed to fight (allowed!) for two years and the message hasn't quite filtered down to the local gym level quite yet.

But she's got the babysitter in and she's not to be turned away. Or at least, not for long. As she's back the next day, and the next, and the next. It's 1998 and the Spice Girls have been preaching the gospel of Girl Power for four years now. There's nothing Lee can't do, and she's got the brand new Lonsdale top to prove it.

Nothing can stop her.

Almost nothing.

Except for the Achilles' heel of the single-mother.

That's where Lee's real fight begins.

And I'm feeling it. The empowerment. The Girl Power. Lee can do anything, and by extension, I can do everything.

I feel myself puffing up with second-hand pride.

The big fight scene's coming. Eye of the Tiger is pounding through the sound system. Lee is coming down the steps of the stalls, the spotlight bouncing off her pink satin robe and...

Lights dim. The scene changes. We're flung forward in time. Back to 2019.

The boxing ring is full of cute kids practising their swings.

Oh. No fight? I deflate back to normal size. I mean... fine. I get it. But I was all psyched up to see two ladies punching each other and now... okay.

Just have to settle for feeling all empowered and shit. Which is alright. I suppose.

Read More

So Pissed that I've already used "You’re in a cult; call your dad" as a Title

"If you don't understand it then I sure as hell don't understand it."

That's Helen after I try to explain the mystery that is Theatro Technis to her.

It's not often that I'm left stumped by a theatre, and I have never been as stumped by a theatre as I am by Teatro Technis.

It started early. Right from the moment I first go on the Theatro's website, I'm inflicted with the huge image of a Greek mask, rendered in black and white, and staring out of my screen. I quickly scroll down. That's far too terrifying an image for my innocent eyes. I only went there to find out what shows they had, not test my bladder control.

Further down there's some text about the theatre. Always helpful. "Independent theatre in Camden," it says. Nice. I like it. To the point. Helpful even.

I carry on, greedy for more intel about this new-to-me theatre. "'Teatro' speaks for itself," it starts. I'm not so sure about that, but let's press on. "'Technis' is an ancient Greek word. It come from a time when people made no distinction between art, work and craft. People didn't make theatre for money, they had to live, yes -but the work itself was rewarded enough. It was important then to have passion for what you were doing and to believe that your work benefited others too. That is Theatro Technis."

Right. Well, ignoring the typos, which I swear to god are not mine, that's a whole lot of words adding up to not a lot.

I decide not to dwell on it and keep scrolling. And keep scrolling. God damn. Does this theatre have any shows, or does it just specialise in the production of grammatically suspect manifestos?

I'm beginning to think there must be more to it. With every "Learn More" link leading me to ever more obtusely written pages, and no sign of a show to book, I am growing ever more suspicious. A number of conspiracy theories peek out from behind the Greek masks. "Perhaps it's a front," one of them suggests. "Who could ever suspect a small fringe venue as a location for shady drug deals?" The second one shakes her head. "Nope," she says. "You just can't translate Theatro. It's actually a corruption of the word thearchy, meaning ruled by the gods." She looks very smug about this theory. "It's a cult," she adds, just to make sure we all got it. The third one doesn't look impressed. "It's a hipster cafe," he says. "Tro is short for trophy. They only serve award-winning teas. Tea-tro. Get it? The Technis just means they won't kick you out for using plugging into your charger to the wall-socket."

Well, that's enough of them. I always find it pays not to listen to the voices in your head.

Moving on.

I eventually found a show and booked myself in. Despite all their best efforts to put me off, I was going. I have a marathon to complete and no amount of menacing mask images are going to put me off.

Besides, I had my own, slightly more mundane, conspiracy theory. That the website was part of the experience. Like when Punchdrunk has a new show. It sets the mood. Provides an atmosphere. Gets you in the right frame of mind for your visit. And if a certain queasiness in the stomach area was what they wanted to provoke in their audiences, well... they have certainly achieved that with me.

So, off I went, negotiating the crowds in Camden until I found myself on a quiet road, with a tall townhouse marked Teatro Technis half way down it. It's an interesting looking building. There's some sort of religious statue action going on over the front door. And the black wall down the side makes me think it used to have a neighbour that has since been disposed of.

There's also a sign. "THEATRE ENTRANCE," it says, in all caps, with an arrow pointing metal railing, behind which there is a wide alleyway with a door at the end of it.

Well, okay then. We weren't going through the statue-guarded front door. Down the creepy alleyway it is, then.

Inside, there's a small table, which I can only presume is the box office. But it's empty of both people and paper. Not the box office then. On the opposite end, there's a bar.

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

I'm taken aback. I mean, yes, I have an interesting surname. But my first name isn't usually ready to go at the front of strangers' memories.

I soon find out the reason for this immediate recognition. There's a print-out of the online bookers. There's me, at the bottom, being ticked off as I watch. Above me, there's only one other name. Two advance bookers. Oh dear.

Forget the masks and the alleyway. That's my worst fear: being in an audience with only one other person. Or even worse. Just me.

Thankfully, we are not there. Not quite yet. There are a few people more hanging out in this foyer.

I look around, trying to work this place out.

The door to the theatre is to the right of the bar. There's a door to the loos on the left.

Which begs the question - where's the townhouse? I'll admit, my geography isn't that great. But even I can't be this badly turned around. The saintly townhouse should be on the left as well, but unless those are some exceedingly luxuriously proportioned toilets, it can't be. Which means the two buildings are separate. Which in turn means... well, I don't know.

A couple push their way through the loo doors. They're each holding a glass of wine.

My pet conspiracy theorists each shrug. This is a mystery too big even for them.

The house opens. It's time to go in.

The room is large. And old. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two blocked off fireplaces behind the main bank of seats. It looks like an old village schoolroom, although given the statue on the main building, I presume it must be church related in origin.

I find a spot in the second row.

There aren't two of us watching the show. Or even four.

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

Light from the corridor floods in, as does the sound of glasses and chatter from the bar. By the sounds of it, there are more people out there than in here.

A woman sitting in my row stands up and tries to wave to the person in the tech booth, set high in the wall, but there's not much the tech person can do.

A latecomer arrives. The woman waves and points frantically at the door. He doesn't understand. He ducks his head and hurries into a seat.

The woman looks around, clearly ready to storm across the stage and close the door herself. But she is blocked in on either side. She sits down again and we spend the next few minutes listening to the talk over at the bar while the actors hold some kind of meditation circle.

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

I shift uncomfortably in my chair. My pet conspiracy theorists are nodding knowingly. It was all a test. A series of challenges designed to ensure that only the most dedicated would come here. The cryptic website with its unnerving masks. The impossible floorplan. And now this play. It was like those people hawking personality tests outside the Scientology Centre on Tottenham Court Road. "Come, watch a play. Perhaps you might discover something about yourself."

The thing that I was fast discovering about myself is that I wanted to get out of there. Right now.

I try and concentrate on the play. The cult on stage is falling apart but the one in the audience is growing ever stronger.

More people come in. A large group. Halfway through the play and suddenly the audience has doubled in numbers.

I look over. They're all young and shiny-faced, glowing with some inner contentment.

The perfect example of a cult member.

I can't look for long. The lighting cues are all over the place. One part of the room is illuminated for a scene, then another joins in to greet the arrival of more actors to the same scene. Too often we're plunged into darkness, left alone to stare unseeing at an empty stage. I am convinced they are trying to break my will.

When the play ends, my instinct is to make a burst for the exit. But I hold back, waiting for the young people to gather their things and leave.

Eventually, the path is clear and I get up, walking straight towards the exit, pushing them open without a backwards glance.

I don't turn back. Not until I'm safely in Mornington Crescent tube station. I jump onto the first train to arrive, not caring what branch it's travelling on. I just want to get as far away as possible.

Read More

Dance to the Music of Time

Going to see a show at a venue that you used to work for is like going back to your old school to pick up your exam results. You're kinda excited about the possibilities, but that's buried deep under a mountain of fear, trepidation, and the deep conviction that you never wanted to see any of these people ever again, and you've somehow managed to forget all their names over the past three weeks.

I'm not saying that's how I felt walking to Canada Water Culture Space, but I'm also not not saying it.

Thankfully, a lot of time has passed since my time here, and everyone I knew has now moved on. But that didn't stop them popping into my head to say hello as the ship-shaped building appeared around the corner. So intense was that feeling of their presence, I could swear that I could hear them squawking in the distance. I decide to go check, crossing over the small terrace outside the building towards the water of Canda Water. I look down over the railing. Yup. There they are, tossing their heads and doing their very best to pretend that they had never seen me before and we definitely didn't spend our lunchtimes together on the reg. Ducking bastards.

Well, two can play at that game. I leave them to their ducking rude behaviour and go inside.

Everything is just as I remember it. The cafe on one side. The bar on the other. The bright orange walls, and the spiralling staircase. There's the doors which will take you up to the offices. And on the right are the ones that lead to the auditorium. Go further in and you will find bookshelves. Because CWCS just a theatre. It's also a library. Or rather, it's a library and a theatre. I'd say the ration between library and theatre is probably 85:15. So really, it more library than theatre. A library with a theatre attached, if you will.

Even so, there's the disconcerting shift. Where everything is the same enough to be recognisable, but just different enough to confuse and make me question things.

Like, where the hell is the box office?

I'd expected there to be someone with a laptop and a box of admission passes on the end of the bar. But there's nothing at the end of the bar apart from bar.

I'm not the only one looking around.

"I don't know, mate," says a bloke. He looks at his phone. "Ground floor it says."

A woman arrives. She's involved with the show. I can tell she's involved with the show because she spends the next five minutes loudly saying hello to people she recognises.

"I'm just going to pick up my ticket. I'll be right back," she declares with a regal wave of the hand before disappearing off towards the library half of the foyer.

Ah. I can see where she's going. There's a small desk set up over there, dwarfed and in the shadow of the library's one. What do we call that? The lending desk? The circulation desk? The desk you take the books to? Well, that one.

Stuck to the front of the small desk is a small sign. Box Office it says. I'm in the right place.

CWCS has gone up in the world since my day.

A real box office. Amazing. There are even freesheets piled up on the corner, just waiting to be picked up.

When I get to the front of the queue I give my name.

Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition.

"Here you go," says the girl on box office, handing me an admission token as if I were just some regular punter coming to see a show.

My fantasies that there might be some plaque dedicated to all my hard work somewhere in the halls of the building upstairs, perhaps something tasteful next to the kettle in the kitchen, are dashed.

"Thanks," I say, and move away to lick my wounds in peace.

I turn over the admission pass in my hands. These things have improved too. Gone are the laminated logos of four years ago. Printed on the photocopier and cut out by hand. They're now heavy plastic cards. Gold heavy plastic cards.

I put it in my pocket and turn my attention to the freesheet. It follows the standard formula. One I use myself when making these things: title and company name, then intro, then credits, then supporters. Simple, effective, and nothing out of the ordinary, except for the largest arts council logo I have ever seen in my life. They must have been extremely grateful for that funding.

This gets folded and put in my pocket too.

There's a long queue at the bar.

I want to recommend the matcha lattes. Matcha lattes were my drink of choice when I worked here. Me and the other girl in the office would go up onto the roof on sunny afternoons to drink the obscenely green froth and watch the reflection of the clouds pass across the high glass towers. Now that I think of it, I'm not entirely sure we were allowed to be on the roof, matcha lattes or no. But hey, it was a while back, and I'm sure the statute of limitations on roof-matcha drinking has now passed.

I try looking back through my old photos to find of the view, but all I have turn up is one of a duck on the roof. I don't plan on apologising though. You're getting a picture of a duck on a roof.

Oh dear. I seem to have spent a little too long on anecdote island. People are going in.

I follow them.

CWCS is a strange venue. And not just because it's inside a library. There are two banks of seating, but they are not on opposite sides of the stage as you might expect, but angled either side of an aisle, so that they hug the diamond-shaped stage like the setting of a ring.

I don't remember where the best seats are anymore, so I pick a spot near the aisle on the third row. It looks as good as any other.

To seats are slow to fill up. The queue at the bar is clearly in still in full force.

But there's loud music playing and the mood is high. Bonnie Tyler tends to have that effect on people, and I Need a Hero is an absolute banger of a tune.

Even the front of houser on door duty is getting in the mood, mouthing along to the lyrics.

"We went around twice and couldn't find it," laughs someone sitting behind me. "I was like, is it in the library...?"

Yeah, this place really needs better signage out there.

Still, plenty of people have managed to find it. The house looks full. Which is definitely different to how it was in my day. Though to be fair, it was all folk-music and flamenco back then. Nothing like the show on tonight, which from the looks of the freesheet features a spoken word artist and "two acrobatic dancers." Sounds good, although I'm not entirely sure what acrobatic dancers are. There aren't any biogs to draw clues from, but judging from the twitter handle of one of them, she's a b-girl. I guess that explains it. Breakin is fairly fucking acrobatic.

The spoken word artist comes out. He's Adam Kammerling and he's doing a show about masculinity and violence. He introduces the two dancers: Si Rawlinson, who was drafted in at the last minute, and the b-girl, Emma Houston, who trained in contemporary dance. Then he points to the tech desk. Rachel will be doing the lighting, and playing the role of his mother. I look over. Oh my god! It's Rachel Finney! I know her! Well, I mean. Know in the sense that we worked in the same place for a while. Aww. That's nice.

Introductions done, Adam invites the audience to heckle him.

I slip down in my seat, praying that it won't be that kind of show.

It's not. After Adam gets his heckle ("Cut your hair!") we're allowed to relax, or as much as one can relax in a super pumped audience.

Kammerling tells stories from his childhood back in Somerset and as a fellow Somerseter, I feel an instant kinship. Even if I ran with the young-farmers crowd rather than the car-park kids, some experiences are universal, even to those who grew up outside the confines of the West Country. I mean, haven't we all gone on Mission Impossible style expeditions to secure the new box of cereal from the top shelf? I didn't have the benefit of two dancer side-kicks though.

And oh god, the dancers are cool. Playing brothers and friends and bullies and furniture, they preen and pose and punch as Kammerling tells his tales. There are not mere props in a spoken word performance. Something to look at while we listen to Kammerlong's words. We all wince and groan as Rawlinson tells a story about falling during a performance, and laugh as the pair of them lend their knees as a seat for Kammerling.

They definitely didn't have shit like this in my day.

After the show, it's only a matter of going out one door and heading straight through another as I rush into the tube station that lurks directly underneath the building.

Part library. Part theatre. Part tube station. And built like a ship. That's CWCS. The weirdest damn theatre in London.

Read More

Etcetera, etcetera and so forth

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undetermined. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.

I’m there on the right night.

Believe me.

I’ve checked. Multiple times.

The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.

“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.

I don’t smoke.

“So, what’s your name then?”

Christ. Do we really have to do this?

I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.

So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.

I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.

I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.

"That bad?" I'd laughed.

"No. Just... um..."

I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...

There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.

I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.

The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.

Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.

I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.

Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.

Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to go. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.

And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.

Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etetcerta theatre signed off tonight.

If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.

It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.

That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.

Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.

But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.

"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.

Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.

It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).

It's nice out here. Quite despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.

"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etercera Theare, subject to availability."

That's clever. I like that.

The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.

I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.

Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.

The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.

The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.

The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.

There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club.

Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.

I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.

"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.

She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."

It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to move down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.

Silence.

Is it starting?

A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.

She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.

Everyone seems a little nervous.

I think it's the set.

Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.

It's a school room.

I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.

Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I was well up for that.

Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...

Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.

But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they tried to get as far way from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.

What it is is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.

Like the protagonist of Killymuck at the bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.

I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.

When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.

What a difference an hour makes.

Read More

Don't cry over spilt water

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms in Camden looking at my phone. I’ve just spent the last five minutes taking photos of the exterior and I’m now checking them to make sure they didn’t come out too fuzzy or too dark. I’m not much of a photographer, but I try.

There’s a theatre in this pub. Not that you get much of a sense of that from the outside. Not proud proclamations of being a theatre pub up from the sign. No posters in the window. Not hanging banners. All we get is an A-frame sign in the doorway with the Etcetera Theatre street-sign inspired logo, and the listings of the upcoming shows stuck beneath.

I zoom into the image, checking that the logo was legible.

It was. I know I bang on about it, but I really love the Pixel 2.

But something catches my eye. Something small. I spread my fingers, enlarging the image even more.

There, on the image announcing the show I’m there to see, is a line of text. The date. Tomorrow’s date.

I spin around. Looking at the poster in real life doesn’t help. It still says Wednesday 17th April.

Today is Tuesday.

I had turned up on the wrong day.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shitshitshit.

Okay. Don’t panic. It’s fine. The show had an early start. It wasn’t even 7pm yet. I had time to get to wherever I was supposed to be.

Probably.

I bring up my spreadsheet on my phone. Tuesday / 16.04.19 / Evening / Etcetera Theatre.

Gawdammit.

It was the spreadsheet that was wrong. The one thing that stood between me and total marathon-chaos had failed.

Breathe, Maxine.

Think.

I could move Wednesday’s outing. It was a non-marathon thing anyway.

Fine.

But what about tonight?

I suddenly had a free evening. I could go home. Eat a proper dinner. May even, and this was really out there, do some laundry.

I start walking towards the tube station. If I’m quick, I could be home before 7.45pm. I could get at least two loads done before bed time. That’s woollens and whites. I’m almost bouncing with brimming potential.

And then I remember.

Eight theatres. I’d just found eight London-based, marathon-qualified, theatres that needed to be added to the list. A list that had already grown by twelve theatres over the weekend. 275 theatres. Plus eight that still need to be added to the website. 283 theatres.

Tonight was supposed to be theatre number 105.

That leaves… I’m too stressed to maths. It’s… a lot of theatres still to go by the end of the year.

I couldn’t let this evening go to waste on dinner and laundry. Not without a fight.

I retrieve my phone from my pocket, and recheck the spreadsheet. Could I move something up? Tricky.

I swipe the spreadsheet away and open up TodayTix instead. Perhaps there’s a bargain going in the West End. I can still make it if I get on the tube, like, right now.

Nothing. Booking has closed for the night.

Shit.

What else?

I’m scrolling back and forth through my apps, as if one called Free Ticket Anyone Facing A Spreadsheet Fail might leap out from between the icons.

I pause.

There is something.

My Maps.

If you’ve ever visited the home page of my website, you might have noticed the map there. It has all (well, nearly all, I don’t update it nearly enough) of the marathon venues there. Red for the ones I’ve been to. Yellow for the ones I still need to visit.

I open it.

There are three theatres within a mile of the Etcertera. The Roundhouse. Teatro Technis. And The Lion and the Unicorn.

I start Googling.

Nothing at the Roundhouse. It’s dark tonight.

Teatro Technis’ show doesn’t open until Friday.

With shaking fingers I click my way to The Lion and Unicorn’s website.

Thank god. They have a show.

What time is it? Past seven. They might have already printed out the lists for tonight. I would have to turn up and hope I could buy a ticket on the door.

Was I really doing this?

Breathe.

Think.

Fuck it. No time for that.

Run!

I pelt it down Camden High Street, barely waiting for the lights to change as I turn right, then right again onto Kentish Town Road.

What street is in on again? Gainsford Road? Over there. Another right.

I slow down, catching my breath.

After the clutter and filth of Kentish Town Road, I seem to have stumbled into some middle class oasis. Tall stuccoed town houses line the streets. There are trees. I can even hear birdsong.

And there it is. Coming up on the left.

The Lion & Unicorn Pub.

I have never been so grateful to see a pub in my life.

There’s a chalkboard in the window, proudly proclaiming what’s on this month in the theatre.

I go instead.

“Theatre This Way” says a helpful little sign over a small door.

I go through, and find a makeshift box office balanced on a ledge beside the stairs.

“Err. Can I buy a ticket?” I ask, realised that I have no idea what show is actually on. That didn’t seem a particularly important factor up until now.

Turns out I could.

It’s been a long time since I bought a ticket in person. Turns out it’s a bit of a faff.

“Can I take your email?” asks the guy on ledge-duty, to whom I can only apologise to for making him type in my entire fucking email address on a tablet. That is not a fate that I would wish on anyone.

“First name Max I take it?”

He can.

“And surname Smiles?”

Yup.

“That's a nice surname.”

It is.

“Do you want to join the mailing list? Don't feel you have to say yes. I never do.”

Well, I would, but I won't be able to return until next year so… Probably best not to explain all that. I just cringe and decline.

Should I ask what the show is? Bit late, now that I’ve already bought my ticket. Might come off as a little… weird. I’m already coming off as weird. I should just keep quiet.

It’ll be a nice surprise, whatever it is.

I hate surprises.

That was the whole point of the spreadsheet.

“House should open in five or six minutes. Bar just through there, loos downstairs.”

I have a walk around the pub.

It’s nice in here. Very nice. A bit fancy even.

The walls are papered in a caviar print.

There’s black and white tiles near the bar.

And large wooden tables.

And… a dog bowl? Two dog bowls?

That’s either a sign that they are supremely dog friendly or… oh my god. There’s a dog. There’s a dog in the pub. He’s walking around, getting pets from the patron. Oh, my lord he’s cute. And blonde. With curly fur.

My second pub theatre dog this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

He walks past me and I give him a little pat.

He’s not impressed by my pats. He’s probably had hundreds of them already today.

He moves on.

The bell rings. The house is open.

“You just bought a ticket,”ledge-guy confirms, pointing at me as I go through the door. “We try and be paper free.”

Up the stairs, past a row of tasteful looking show posters (this place really is fancy…), following someone who looks like she knows where she’s going.

She opens a door. It does not lead to a theatre. Ummm.

We get pointed in the right direction. Which is, in fact, left.

Ah. Here we are. The theatre.

Larger than I expected. Much larger than any pub theatre I’ve ever been in.

So fucking fancy.

There is a freesheet placed on every single sheet. The sure sigh of a classy establishment.

I chose the first row with a proper rake. It’s the fifth row. After so many teeny-tiny pub theatres, this ends up feeling very far away. Fifth row and I'm complaining. Fifth row with suburb leg room. God this place is so fucking classy.

At 7.33 the bell rings again, and the last stragglers are chivvied upstairs.

It’s not often you get double-bell action outside of places like the Opera House.

So. Fucking. Fancy.

I pick up my freesheet and have a look.

Turns out I was there for Hatch Scratch. A night of new writing.

Cool.

A woman comes to the front of the stage. The plays have all been written around the theme of “taboo.”

Double cool.

The first play of the night if about social anxiety, which I take as a personal attack. Bloody playwrights, bringing real things to life on the stage.

On the list of taboos we also have child abandonment, ISIS brides and a mother struggling to cope with her child who has disabilities (“I’m a cunt,” she announces, which surely has to be the best opening line to a play, ever).

Ledge-guy reappears. “If you can all vacate the space, I’ll bring you back up after the interval.”

We all march downstairs. The actors are already there, at their own table, eating chips.

Good as his word, the ledge-guy rings the bell again. “The house is now open for act two of Hatch.”

We all heave ourselves up and head back towards the stairs.

“Please be careful on the stairs, there's a little spillage,” says the ledge-guy. There is indeed a small dribble of water on the steps. At least, I hope its water. I side-step it.

The second half is packed with more taboos. Suicide and masturbation (in the same play, which is quite the twofer), polyamory, and abortion. Plus, and I shudder to write this one down, chia-eaters.

I’ve seen a lot of scratch nights in my time. A lot of terrible scratch nights.

I don’t know how to take this one. The writing is good. The acting excellent.

Where are the crumpled scripts hanging out of back pockets? Where is the badly edited music padding out half-written scenes? Where are the rushed endings, and poor characterisation, and jokes that don’t land? What? Am I supposed to laugh at this funny lines that are being delivered perfectly?

Fucking amateurs.

As the actors all file back in to take their bows I can see that the stage is exactly fourteen actors wide, which is a hella impressive width for a pub theatre stage. Fancy fuckers.

Ledge-guy appears to thank the company. I’m feeling a bit bad about thinking of him as the ledge-guy now.

“I'll be standing just outside with a Magic bucket. So if you have any share change, notes, coins, anything...”

Okay, ledge-guy. I just spent twelve quid on a ticket that I was forced to buy because I’m an idiot. I realise that’s not your fault, but I’m fresh out of funds for the week.

“Please take your glasses with you. It makes our lives that bit easier.”

He disappears through the door to rattle his magic bucket.

There’s a regular ping as coins bounce off the bottom. So I don’t feel too bad about not contributing my own ping.

Next time. I promise.

Seriously though. The Lion & Unicorn is fancy as fuck.

Read More

No Sense

“Wait for the bell. Go upstairs. Sit where you like. You can take in a drink.”

I’m in the Old Red Lion pub. The granddaddy of them all when it comes to pub theatres. And these are the instructions I’m given as the box office lady picks up one of the laminated admission tokens from a pile on the counter and hands it to me.

I’m grateful for them. The instructions I mean. This evening sounds like it’s going to be a bit challenging on the old brain-front, and I think I’m going to need all the guidance I can get.

I’m here for Theatre Without Sight or Sound, which I’m going to admit right out, is a bit naughty of me. I mentioned a few posts back that I have rules, and I have rules: the official ones, and the not-so-official-but-equally-valid ones. One of those unofficial rules is that I try to avoid seeing hires. Then XXX days later, what am I doing? I’m booking for a show listed in the visiting companies section of the theatre’s website, that’s what.

In my defence - I thought it would make a good blog post. Yup. That’s it. I wanted to write about it. That’s my reason.

Anyway, they’re my not-technically-the-rules, and I’ll break them if I damn well please.

I grab a sofa. One of those leather chesterfields that make you feel like you’re waiting to tell than nice Dr Watson and his creepy acquaintance all about your missing Aunt Gertrude. It’s curiously unoccupied, until I realise that it’s positioned to face the loos.

After the second time I get my foot trodden on by someone with a bladder even weaker than their eyesight, I realise that I should probably move. After the third time my stubbiness kicks in and I sink defiantly into the cushions. On the fourth time my toes get squashed, I’m ready to do some squashing of my own…

The bell rings.

There’s now a queue to get into the theatre, and from my position on the sofa, I seem to now be right at the front of it.

I consider feeling guilty about this but, hey, I’ve had my foot trodden on four times and I didn’t even hit anyone. I deserve this.

We traipse upstairs. Old show posters are wallpapered up the steps. They date back to the nineties, when tickets were a fiver, and London still had a 0171 area code.

The corridor upstairs is red. Very red. Pub theatre red, as I’m now starting to think of it.

“Put this on,” says a woman by the door to the theatre, handing me a blindfold fresh out of the packet.

I decide that this instruction is one that needs a little delay before following through on. There’s still the matter of finding my seat to get through first.

The seating at the ORL is built up on two sides. They’re made up of wooden benches, akin to church pews but significantly less wholesome looking. Something about the addition of the buttoned red fabric makes it look distinctly debauched. These benches must have seen a lot over the years.

I go for the second row, opposite the door. I like to be able to keep an eye on the exit. Especially for the type of show where you get handed a blindfold. There’s no telling what might happen at the type of show where you get handed a blindfold.

Thankfully, we have someone to explain.

The first three plays of the evening are to be performed without sight (that’s where the blindfolds come in). After an interval, they’ll be another set of three - these ones without sound.

“Try to keep the blind folds on to preserve the theatre magic. But if you need to rub your eye, that's fine,” we’re told. "Place your wine in your hand, not under the seat. Once you put your blindfold on, I promise you won't be able to find it."

Right then. Blindfold on. It’s time for the first play.

Oh god, this is going to smudge my eyeliner, isn’t it? I try to put in on carefully, but it’s no good. I might have well sat myself down in the splash zone at Titus Andronicus for the mess it's going to make.

Well, there's nothing for it. I say goodbye to my wings and put on the blindfold.

Things go a bit scifi in the first play, In the Shadow. A bit Black Mirror. A soul is trapped in the dark. And we're trapped with it. I imagine the benches as shelves in a lab. And all the blindfolded audience members as brains in jars, lined up and watching as our fellow consciousness struggles with his new reality.

As the play ends, loud clapping bring us back into the theatre.

Are we allowed to take our blindfolds off? I pull mine up tentatively. Others are doing to same. We blink into the light.

I wipe under my eyes, but there's no time to get out a mirror. The next play is being introduced: Two to the Chest.

I pull the blindfold back down and surrender to the darkness, but it's no good. I keep on getting pulled back. Someone is rustling a plastic bag behind me and I can't concentrate. The words seem to float around without meaning. I can't follow what's happening. Something about wrestling? I have no idea.

Voices move around the space. Coming close to me and then move away. I shrink back into the seat, suddenly very aware that the actors can see us, but we can't see them. The power balance feels all wrong. Distorted. As if we're in a dock, being judged, and unable to face our accusers.

The back of the bench is hard against my spine. I can't move. Every time I shift my weight it sounds like a symphony of creaking wood.

I try to concentrate on the play, but it's impossible. I can't focus.

When the applause breaks through, I don't hesitate to push my blindfold up onto my forehead. I crave the light. To know what is happening around me.

There's a few people in the audience who don't bother. The sit stoic, their black masks undisturbed.

Last play. The Monkey’s Paw. A story I despise. I have no patience for repetitive storylines. Three wishes from the genie's lamp. Three ghosts of Christmas past. Three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. Three big yawns from ya gal, Maxine.

It's a radio play, with some very dodgy sounding advertisers.

There's some proper foley action going on. I itch to take off my blindfold, but not because it's uncomfortable, but because I'm desperate to see what is going on. Bollocks to the theatre magic. For the first time, I get the sense that something is happening beyond the words. That the blindfold is actually preventing me from witnessing something interesting. The loss of a sense is a proper loss.

I sit on my hands, veering between delight and desperation as the play crackles on. This is it. This is the stuff. Here's were the writing (Jack Williams and Sara Butler) and direction (Matthew Jameson) have run with the idea of the lack of sight and made it into something beyond the mere absence of visuals.

"You can now take the blindfolds off," says our host.

The actors line up for their applause and we get to see them for the first time. Who was who? I can't tell. I check the freesheet. "The Monkey's Paw. Performed by Sophie Kisilevsky & Liam Harkins." Only two actors? I was convinced it was three. Blimey.

I reach into my bag and grab my compact. I'm a mess, with lines all over my face. I've aged forty years in forty minutes.

"Would you like me to take that back for you?" asks my neighbour, indicating the discarded blindfold sitting on the bench next to me.

Clearly she senses my pilfering fingers. I do love to steal an audience prop given half the chance.

I let her take it away.

Feeling woozy, I stumble back down the stairs to the pub. I'm not sure what to do with myself. Everything is too bright, but at the same time, not bright enough. My eyes dart around, unable to latch onto anything, until...

I don't mean to alarm anyone, but there's a dog on the sofa.

A massive dog.

A frickin' adorable dog.

He's asleep. No doubt exhausted from a hard day of pub theatre management.

I bite the inside of my mouth, trying very hard not to squee. Important dogs don't like being squeed at. Especially when they're sleeping.

I really want to pet him.

I back away slowly.

Back up the stairs and I notice something. There's a door set high into the wall. And it's open. Cool night air pours in.

Outside I catch a glimpse of a terrace.

Not letting myself think too hard about whether I was allowed out there, I climbed through.

There's not much of a view, but it's glorious all the same. I hadn't realised how stuffy it was inside until that moment.

I walk around a little, letting my limbs click back into place and my senses realign. This is just what I needed.

I'm ready to go back in.

"Here you go. Earplugs," says the woman on the door to the theatre handing me a small packet.

I really hope that they don't want us to give these back.

Our host reappears and we're given a short lesson on how to use them. Squish them down and stick 'em in, basically. Then wait for them to expand.

I don't know whether you've ever worn earplugs before, but let me tell you, they are next to useless. They're little better than sticking a finger over your ear when you're trying to have an important phone call in the office. They take off the edge, but in no way do they cut out sound.

Our host speaks to us through the medium of cue cards. A game of charades. People call out their guesses. We can hear the guesses. And yet, we all pretend that we're deaf to the world around is. That's the real charade.

The plays without sound start. First off, A Silent Farce. Set in a world where no one speaks. Actors hold phones to their ears and yet never say a word.

We don't hear anything, not because of the earplugs, but because there is nothing to hear.

The same in the next play, Tick-Tock. No one speaks. Communication is via touch and significant glances.

I'm beginning to wonder what the brief was for these plays. Did the writers know how the audience would be watching their work?

The host reappears in between each play, with his cards. Except this time he's brought the wrong ones. "say it's carol singers," the first one reads. We're being Love Actuallied.

Eventually, the mistake is realised, and the cards swapped out with the tech desk, for one with the name of the next play: Quest Invisible.

Reece Connolly comes out. He sticks a sign to his chest. "Stork," it says.

He pulls a rolled up blanket from a basket and sticks a sign onto that to. "Baby."

Something tells me things are going to get weird.

Five minutes later I find myself being handed a piece of paper with a large sperm drawn onto it. Connolly mimes that we should crumple up the paper and lob it at an egg he's placed onto a chair.

This we do. Wadded up paper balls fly across the stage, landing everywhere but on the chair. Connolly sighs. We failed to fertilise the egg.

Another sign is brought out. A gold one this time. "Super Sperm."

An audience member is dragged onto the stage. He's ordered to kneel down while the golden sign is folded into a paper aeroplane. He can get up now. To throw the dart. It misses. It wasn't a very good dart. So much for super sperm.

Jessica Wren, our mother-to-be, rushes back and forth across the stage, carrying fruit to indicate how big her baby is now.

A silent game of heads or tails is played with another audience member, to decide the personality of the baby, like we're building a new character in the Sims. Heads for yes. Tails for no. Sporty? Heads. Kind? Heads. Intelligent? Tails.

When the laughter gets too much, Connelly presses his fingers to his lips. Shh. We'll wake the baby! he mimes. It's so hard though! Rebekah King's didn't just create a world without sound, she made one where sound exists, but we're not allowed to use it.

As if to prove my point, Connelly goes up to his chosen one, the Super Sperm, after the curtain call. "Sorry," he apologies. "But it had to be you."

He can talk after all. When the baby's not around.

Read More

The Multiverse is Female

You know that scene in Pride, when the young woman stands up in the working man's club, and sings out in her lilting Welsh accent about bread and roses, making everyone in the room a bit weepy eyed? Yeah, I totally wasn't thinking about that when I booked to see a show at the Bread & Roses pub.

If anything, it was a spur of the moment decision to go. Perhaps driven by my recent bread-and-theatre ponderings at the Hen & Chickens, or maybe by the rose-print dress that I put on in the morning. Or, more likely, because the marketing copy promised the presence of a female serial killer and I am all about that. I'm all about equal opportunities, and I don't see what the criminal classes should get off easily with fighting the patriarchy.

Still, it didn't stop me getting a little bit itchy around the eyes when I stepped through the door and saw the line "our lives shall not be sweetened from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as wells as bodies: Give us Bread but give us Roses" written in a scrolling script over the bar. It's right next to the sign for the theatre, making it quite clear what the roses are in this analogy.

The roses however, are not on view quite yet. A red rope cordoned off the entrance to the theatre.

I find a good leaning spot and wait it out. Unfortunately my spot is right next to the stage. The other stage. For the band that will be playing later on. They're warming up. Loudly. Very loudly. Like, ear-splittingly loud. They're not supposed to start until 9pm, and it's not even, so I can only hope that they're getting their levels set before the performance upstairs starts. Somehow I don't think this place has invested in top-notch soundproofing.

At least I know it will be a short show though. Gotta be done in time for the gig.

I'm not the only one keeping an eye on the theatre entrance. A couple wander over to have a look. Ten minutes to go and it's still roped off.

A moment later, someone disappears under the rope. That looks promising. I hope they are going upstairs to check if they're ready for us up there. And... yup. Sure enough, he's back. He unlocks the rope and reaches over to the bar to grab the bell. "Anyone for the theatre?" he calls out.

There's a general unfolding in the pub's clientele as people get to their feet and try to locate their bags.

I go over to the door.

"One ticket?" he says as he places a mark next to my name on the clipboard. "On the first floor."

There's a small landing half-way up the steps, with a window that's been frosted to reveal the pub's URL, the calling card of a 21st century Jack Frost. I stop to take a photo, but there's someone behind me.

"Sorry," I apologise. I hate getting caught with my camera out.

"That's okay," comes the sweet reply. "Take your time," he says.

But I'm embarrassed and I hurry up the remaining steps to the first floor.

The door to the theatre-space is just around the corner.

Inside, there’s a stage taking up most of the room, with chairs arranged on three sides. That makes it sound like a thrust stage, and I don’t mean that at all. The chairs are in a single row. If anything, I felt like I was picking where to sit at a dinner party. Our host for the evening has neglected to make place cards.

I head for a corner seat. For bag dumping reasons.

I immediately regret this decision.

Two actors are already on stage, and one of them is painting, daubing at a small canvas with a very long brush. I can’t see what she’s working on and I’m immediately desperate to find out.

“The best seating in terms of the view iss this side or that side,” comes a voice as more people traipse in. She points to the two long rows of seats. A woman on the end, discovering that she is in inferior seats, bursts out if her chair and hurries over to the row opposite my own.

I decide to stay where I am.

This must be the first raised platform I've seen used in the round. Certainly in a venue this small. I like it. Does away with those pesky questions of whether you're allowed to walk across the stage. You'd have to be very committed to stage-walking to get up there.

But that does lead to a lot of shuffling as people try to make their way between the chairs and the stage.

A few knocked-knees later, the seats are beginning to fill up. The advice regarding the view stops, and the sad little end row is eventually occupied.

We’re ready to begin.

Just to Sit at Her Table, Silver Hammer & Mirabilis is billed as a trilogy of woman plays, but instead of running one after the other, they decide to play them all at once, cutting between the three monologues, jumping from character to character in a fast-paced exploration of three different women’s lives.

All very different. And yet, curiously, similar.

Apart from the being women thing. That’s a given.

Joined by themes of psychology, religion and art, they each tell their stories, demonstrating duel natures to their personalities. The sex worker using wordplay and double entendres as she talks to her clients, the serial killer’s abstract paintings are influenced by the bodies of her victims, and the dancer reaches a heightened plain of spirituality as she purges herself of sustenance.

They even look similar. Tayla Kenyon, Ellen Patterson, and Sirelyn Raak are all white, blonde, young, and pretty.

They pad around the stage in bare feet, weaving past one-another, talking to the audience, but unseeing of one another.

I can almost imagine them as echoes of each other. The lives unlived. The paths not taken.

“Do you want us to help with the get out?” a woman asks her neighbour as the applause cases the three actors off the stage. I can only presume her neighbour is connected to the show, or that would be a very strange offer. (For those not hot on the theatre lingo, a get out is when… well, it’s literally when everyone gets out - breaking down the set, packing the props, crowbarring the actors away from the bar and leaving the theatre ready for the next set of props and players for their… get in).

He politely declines and they decide to meet up in the pub instead.

I have my own getting out to worry about. I seem to be stuck in my corner.

“Sorry sweetheart,” says the get out lady as she realises I’m blocked in.

Oh, theatre people. They truly are the best creatures in the world.

As I make my way to the door, I remember something and double back. I skirt round the stage until I’m there, standing in front of the easel.

I can definitely sense the dead bodies that went into making this.

Read More

Keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie

Nicki and I are in the lift, trying to get out of the office.

"What are you seeing tonight?" she asks, as the lift decides to stop on every single floor on the way down.

I hesitate. Fuck it. Nicki knows about the marathon. She won't judge. "A play about chemsex," I say proudly.

Nicki shocked face is reflected out into infinity in the lift's mirrors.

Perhaps that's not the kind of thing you're supposed to tell your coworker. I'll need to check the employee handbook.

"My life is weird," I explain.

"No. It's brilliant!" she says, recovering quickly. "Just don't take any poppers. They'll probably be handing them around."

With this caution from a collegue eight years my junior ringing in my ears, I set off in the direction of Old Street. I was off to The Courtyard, which is a theatre I have only visited once before, nearly four years ago, but remains the location of my top theatre experience of all time: King Lear with Sheep. For those that missed the heading days of 2015, King Lear with Sheep was a shortened version of the Bards great play, with only one actor, and lots of sheep. Real sheep. Really real sheep. You could smell them all the way down the corridor and half-way down the stairs. Hear them before they appeared on stage. Read about them in their biographies listed on the back of the freesheet. And cry with them. The Sheltand Sheep by the name of Snowdrop, who plays Cordelia, rested her head back against's Lear's shoulder with such swanlike grace, her death-scene still haunts me. It was masterful, magical, and completely mad.

And now I'm back. For a play about chemsex. Potentially with poppers.

I don't know what The Courtyard was originally, but it has a certain Scottish Baronial look going on with its high walls and turrets. And effect only added to by the forest green canopy over the entrance, hidden away down a side street. The lairds of this castle are down on their luck, and have opened up a B&B while they save up to dredge the loch.

Other than the canopy, The Courtyard doesn't really go in for signposting their presence It's only when you step inside the green corridor within (grass now, rather than forest) that you get confirmation that you're in the right place, with posters and flyers dotted around the place.

Down the stairs and round the corner is the box office. Or rather, that's where I remember the box office as being. The nook is closed tonight. But there's a man with a clipboard, and he's taking names.

"The show starts at 7.30," he says, as he ticks me off. "I'll make an announcement in the bar when it's time to go up."

Nice.

The highland theme extends into the bar. Leather sofas. Dark wood floors. Candelabras sitting on top of a piano. A traffic cone (no doubt left by a student. I went to a Scottish uni. I know what they're like). They've got a bit of trompe l'oeil action going on in the form of wallpaper printed with a bookcase design. And for true authenticity, they are completely lacking in signal. No bars in the bar. And not even a sniff of wifi to be found.

That wasn't the only thing conspicuously missing from the bar.

I looked around. And looked around again.

Yup, no ladies. Well, not many. Just me and... I looked around again, just to double check. Two others. Standing on opposite sides of the room, as if to prevent the air from becoming too saturated with oestrogen.

That was weird.

I mean... not surprising, given the subject matter. But a strange experience none the less. I don't think I've ever been in an audience that was not entirely dominated by women. Is this what blokes feel like when they go to the theatre?

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the one front of houser on duty. "The house is now open if you'd follow me to your seats."

He turns around and starts leading us down the corridor. Now that we've left the cosy bar behind, The Courtyard is beginning to look a bit like a school. Not Hogwarts. More like a secondary comprehensive. A nice one though, as we find out on our tour of the building - past some old-fashioned wooden lockers, up the stairs, and through what looks like a deserted dance studio, complete with mirrored walls, a forlorn-looking piano, and folding chairs stacked up against the mirrored walls.

The front of houser takes up position next to the door of the auditorium. Presumably so that he can count us back in and go in search of any audience members who got drafted into detention along the way.

For a converted school, laird's castle, or possibly library, the auditorium is surprisingly large. With a deep stage then seems to stretch back for miles, faced by banks of raked seating. But I know better than to trust the rake in fringe venues and stomp my way down the steps all the way to the third row.

There's something on the seat. There is something on all the seats. A freesheet. But not like one I've ever seen before. With the credits on one side and a full-page image on the back, these babies have been professionally printed. On a nice cardstock too.

These are going to make some quality programme-selfies. You know the ones. When a person holds their programme up in front of the stage to capture both the set and the paperwork in one perfectly lined up shot, as beautifully demonstrated by theatre bloggers everywhere.

One problem.

The stage isn't empty.

I don't mean the set. That's fine. The sofa and coffee table and whatnot aren't the problem.

The problem is sitting on the floor, snorting up white powder from that very same table. A coffee table which looks exactly like the one in my own living room. Without white powder though, just to be clear.

I still haven't quite worked out the rules of taking pre-show photos when there's a performer on the stage. My queasiness about the situation is probably indication enough that I shouldn't do it.

I do it anyway.

I mean, I have to. Right? It's what bloggers do. It's probably in the bylaws somewhere.

The seats around me gradually fill up and I left sitting in a cloud of cologne. I don't think I've ever been in such a well-scented audience. I dig out a cough sweet from my bag just in case my throat decides to rebel against the wafting perfumes.

The play begins. Two angels emerge from behind the back curtain. Stimulates and the spiritual combine with lots of talk of AIDS and sex and death. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit Tony Kushner, then yeah - I've been getting those Angels in America vibes too. It's even there in the title: Among Angels.

It's just lacking the themes of identity within a broader community told on an epic scale, against the backdrop of late twentieth-century American politics, with a mixture of wit, ruthless observations, and absolute tenderness. But hey, I get it. That's a bit much to ask for from a seventy-five minute running time.

We are treated to a heavy dose of meta-magic though as our main character, Stephen Papaioannou, is whisked away to the other side in an overdose-induced coma, finds himself in a theatre, and indulges us in a spot of the Prospero's "our revels now are ended" speech.

Angels come to listen to him, positioning themselves right in front of the front row, much to the annoyance of a member of the real audience, who turns to his neighbour with an expression of absolute outrage.

Even in the front row you can't escape the curse of the fringe theatre rake.

I take my time leaving. Packing away the freesheet carefully in my bag so that it doesn't crumple, and taking a moment to pay my respects at the sight of Cordelia's demise. Small groups stand around in the studio. There's more downstairs, talking quietly in the corridor. They could be waiting for someone who's involved with the show. That's the most likely explanation. But I prefer to think they were waiting to be called into the headmaster's office. I make a break for it, bursting out of the door before one of the teachers catches me.

Read More

100 x 100

It’s the hundredth day of the year and I’m off to visit my one hundredth theatre of the marathon. That’s a nice little bit of synchronicity that happened quite by chance. With days when I’ve seen nothing at all, and others where I’ve rushed around from one venue to the next, reaching the centenary of days in the marathon and the theatres visited in it, at the same time, didn’t seem likely. It's a mini miracle.

Back when I started this journey, all those years ago on the 1 Jan, I had vague plans of doing something when I hit 100 theatres. A brief overview of everywhere I’d been. Crunch the numbers and count up the stats. But here we are, and I haven’t done any of the prep work.

So, let’s just dive in with theatre one hundred, shall we?

I’m on route to the Lantern Arts Centre, which, in case you didn’t know, is in Raynes Park. Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either.

It’s one of those tricky venues that doesn’t have much in the way of programming. The runs are short and far apart. So when something came up that fitted the marathon criteria, I put it in my spreadsheet without too much consideration as to what it was that I was actually booking.

As I sat on the tube, trundling my way down to south London, I looked up the show I was seeing. A Turbulent Priest. Ah. Thomas Beckett. I’m already feeling smug about my historical knowledge, although it extends just far enough to connect the phrase with the name and no further.

The show’s artwork is quite possibly the most terrifying picture I’ve ever seen in my life. Two men, one of them presumably Mr Beckett, locked in a violent embrace, with their tongues hanging out and their necks in choke-holds, all in a style that makes me ponder what would have happened if Goya was ever let loose in a stained glass workshop.

I closed the webpage and read the latest Brexit news on The Guardian. Much less distressing.

Turns out Raynes Park is rather a long way from South Wimbledon station. I good 40 minute trek distance.

It’s a good thing the show started at 8pm.

Actually, I fully approve of 8pm starts full stop. Because 8pm starts mean short shows. And short shows mean that I can still achieve the coveted goal of being home by 10pm, even with an 8pm start. I mean, a 7pm start combined with a 60 minute run time is the ultimate dream, but I suppose if one has to track all the way to Raynes Park in a post-work rush, then 8pm is more than acceptable.

Even with my walk, I rocked up with twenty minutes to spare, giving me plenty of time to walk around admiring the building. It really is rather spectacular. Red brick, with twin turrets that might have gone some way to explaining the name. It does rather have the look of a lantern. No one of those glass camping ones, you understand. But a brass one, covered in latticework that throws pretty patterns all over the walls. The type of lantern that you tell everyone that you found in a Moroccan souk, but probably started its life in a factory in China.

It won’t surprise you to know that most of the building is given over to a church, but turn the corner and you find a small door leading to the arts centre side of the enterprise.

I stop to take more photos. A young woman approaches. She tests the door. It doesn't open. So she rings the bell. Through the window we see a man come running to the door, opening it from the inside. "Hello!" he says cheerfully.

They both disappear.

A minute later, an old lady comes along. She's heading for the Lantern too. The door rattles as she tests the handle. It's not opening. She makes a disapproving noise under her breath.

"So sorry about that," says the man as he opens the door for her.

She goes in and the door closes one more.

I'm done taking my photos, but I don't want to knock on the door and send them man running to open it again. It must be a right pain in the bum having to answer the door for every audience member coming along. I hang around, waiting.

Soon I spot another woman coming down the pavement. She's taking on her phone. "Yes, the bus drops you right outside the building," she says. Looks like we have ourselves another person going to the Lantern tonight.

"Hello!" says the man, all smiles as he opens the door for us, his enthusiasm undiminished by his door duties.

There's a desk in the foyer, and when he returns to his post I give my name.

"The surname is Smiles?"

"Ah! I remember seeing that one," he says as he flips through the envelopes before handing me the one with my name on it. "Have you been here before?"

I admitted I hadn't.

"You need to head around the corner, up the stairs and the theatre is at the far end."

"Round the corner, up the stairs, on the far end," I repeat.

"Or just follow someone else," he says with a smile.

But there's no one else around the corner, so I journey up the stairs by myself. I find a small group standing at the top. They're wavering.

"That looks like it?" says one, indicating the sole open door.

"Yes, just through there," says someone, apparently on stair duty for this exact circumstance.

We go in just through there.

Or true to, anyway.

There's some bottleneck action going on as people gather to examine the merch table. Or at least, I presume its a merch table. I can't get close enough to look. I squeeze myself through, emerging on the other side in a wide room. White walls. A wood pannelled ceiling that looks like it was transported directly from the seventies. Small posters dotted around at intervals advertising dance classes. It looks like a church hall.

It is a church hall.

There's a raised platform on the end. The stage. With rows of chairs lined up in front of it.

Some brave soul is sitting by herself in the front row. She's keen.

I slip into the second row. Slightly less keen.

"With do little seating they could have allowed more legroom," says a man as he too comes to sit in the second row. He's not wrong. The six or so rows of seats have all been bunched up at one end of the hall, leaving a mass of empty space behind us. Good for those who want to sit close to the stage, I suppose, but not so great for those who want to wriggle their toes every so often.

His companion suggests stretching out his legs underneath the seat in front, which must have done the trick because their conversation soon moves onto the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not the Turbulent Priest, you understand. The current bloke. Who, I have just now realised, because I Googled it to check the spelling of his name, is no longer Rowan Williams, and hasn't been since 2012! Wow, I'm really not keeping up with things. Turns out things do occasionally move on in the Christian church.

Needless to say I can't follow the discussion. Something to do with the Pope. Which, and I've already admitted my ignorance of this whole situation, seems to me to be about five hundred years too late.

I drift out of their conversation and move onto the next.

Behind me a couple are also discussing the Arch-bish. The old one. The really old one. Our man Beckett.

I stop listening. I don't want any spoilers for the show.

The lights dim. The sound of monks chanting fills the space.

Two actors make their way up onto the stage, then hide behind a black screen in order to make their entrance.

They are Saint George and Thomas the Apostle. And Beckett. And Henry II. And a hundred other historical figures that I probably did get taught about at school but have no recollection of. They rush back and forth, diving behind the screen to change costumes as they try on new characters, covering for each other with meta asides to the audience and singing songs in between the historical reenactments.

They are doing the absolute most.

I say 'they' and not their names, because I don't know what they are. There was no cast-sheet floating around (admittedly, there may have been one on the merch table... but that was a battle I wasn't willing to fight) and there's no mention of them on the Lantern's website.

Sorry unnamed actors. You sang. You danced. You changed costume. You educated me on medieval English history. And I have no idea who you are.

Wait, hang on… did they say interval? I checked my phone. But we had a 8pm start? What kind of sicko programmes a two-act play with an 8pm start?

Hamilton rap battle between church and state

A hundred shows in a hundred days. I’ve been to see one hundred shows in a hundred days. Not only that, I’ve been to see one hundred shows, in one hundred different theatres, in one hundred days.

Read More

Le pain, c'est la vie

“Martha, have you been to the Hen and Chickens before?”

I thought if anyone would have been to the Hen and Chickens, it would be Martha. It’s a theatre pub. And Martha loves a theatre pub.

“No!” she cries, sounding distraught and a little bit ashamed about her lack of Hen and Chickens experience. “I really should. I love theatre pubs.” (Told you). “And it’s in Islington, isn’t it?” (It is).

To be fair, there are a lot of pub theatres in Islington. They’re like curry houses on Brick Lane. Bookshops on Charing Cross Road. Or estate agents in Finchley. Bloody everywhere. You have to be real dedicated to the pub theatre cause to go to all of them.

Thankfully, I am. Well, not specifically to pub theatres. But they are definitely part of my remit for the year. Along with barge theatres, museum theatres, outdoor theatres and all the rest of them. So off I go, negotiating all the roadworks that is happening around Highbury and Islington station, as I try to make my way around the roundabout to there (with a short pause to stick my hands through the barriers so that I could get a photo of the exterior without the decorative addition of plastic railings - I told you: real dedicated).

Back over the road and I’m taking some close up shots of the chalkboards outside. They’re advertising the show. “Tonight!” one proclaims. “Killing Nana 7.30pm £15,” topped by a banner stating “The pub/stage/is you” (that one took me a while to work out).

Two young women walk past, look down at their phones then back up again.

They stop. They’re looking at the two chalkboards. Then back up at the door. I know what they’re thinking. I had the same thought as I was taking my photos. There’s no handle. How on earth does it open.

“Is there another entrance?” one asks. They strike off, heading down the road. But the pub isn’t that big, and a minute later they’re back. This time they try the other direction, eventually finding a smaller, less impressive looking doorway. But while it may lack chalkboards to flank it on either side, it benefits from the presence of a handle.

They go in.

I follow them. Not in a creepy way, you understand. Just in a… I’m-done-procrastinating-with-my-photos-and-now-that-someone-else-has-confirmed-where-the-entrance-is-I-might-as-well-go-in way.

It’s packed inside. I have to squeeze myself through at least two groups just to get far enough inside to see what is going on.

To the left of the bar, and a little behind, is the box office. A little podium tucked away in the shadow of the staircase.

We go about the business of getting my name checked off the list.

“You're going to go upstairs when the bell rings,” says the box office man with a directness that I can only appreciate in a new-to-me venue.

He hands me an admission pass and a freesheet. There’s an unspoken agreement that he doesn’t need to ask if I want one, and I don’t need to trouble him with the request to take one.

I make to put the admission pass in my pocket, but something catches my eye. I turn it over. There, scrawled on the back, are the details of the performance. It’s not an admission pass. It’s a ticket. And a weighty ticket at that. it’s the size of a business card, but if you were to get these printed by Moo, you’d be paying extra for that heavy cardstock (I mentioned this to Martha this morning. “Islington,” was her one word reply. Fair enough).

When the bell rings, there’s a rush to the stairs.

The walls are a rather tasty shade of teal. I want to take a photo but there’s already of queue of people behind me. I just manage to catch a snap of the quaint order not to smoke in the theatre. A sign from a bygone era.

As we step into theatre, the teal is replaced by the more traditional theatre blacks.

It’s warm up here. Really warm. First thing I do is pull off my scarf, jacket and even my cardie. I’m still too warm. I need to sit down.

Clunk.

Oh dear.

The seat shifts under me. As someone who once broke a bed while merely sitting on it, this is rather alarming. I hold myself very still. There is no further movement from the seat. I think I’m safe.

Time to inspect the freesheet. And, oh look. It was written by someone in Hollyoaks.

Aww. That takes me back. I used to love Hollyoaks back when I was of a Hollyoaks watching age. I’d only given a brief glance of the marketing copy before going in, but it did all sound very Hollyoaks. Tortured family dynamics. Shut-ins. Overcrowding. This is going to be brilliant.

 

 

I think this must be the first time that I’ve seen vaping on stage. Cigarettes are still very much de rigour. But really, it’s as quaint as the sign on the stairs. With one action, they’ve instantly made every smoking scene in London look passé.

I wonder what the Hen & Chickens stance on vaping is. I didn’t see any signs disallowing it.

 

Read More

The Sound of the Underground

The Bunker. That’s a bar, right? In like, and old bunker left over from the war or something. Yeah, somewhere like Shoreditch. Yeah, yeah. I know the one. Full of hipsters. I mean, I don’t know at all, but I can imagine.

No? Really? A theatre? No. In Borough? What? No. Are you sure?

Turns out they were sure. And so The Bunker was added to the Official Website List™ for the London Theatre Marathon (as opposed to the unofficial list which lives on my laptop and is full of venues I’m still not entirely convinced actually exist).

Trying to pick one solitary show to visit at a theatre I know absolutely nothing about is a bit of a challenge. I try and do a bit of research, visit their website, follow them on Twitter if I’m really feeling rigorous.

So, I did both those things. Nice website. Full of triangles. I like a triangle as much as the next person, so, you know. Good stuff. Quality info too. Nice copy. Very much enjoyed the mention of them testing each and every one of their chairs for comfort. Not sure I entirely believe that, or even know what constitutes a comfort test (I would have thought sitting quietly for two hours, not being allowed to move beyond a crossing and uncrossing of the legs would be a good baseline), but it’s a nice line. Also stuff about e-tickets and QR codes and all that stuff which theatres always seem to bang on about on their websites, but never actually end up using in practice. I ignored all that. You can too.

Over on their Twitter feed we’ve got a lot of retweets. A lot of retweets. Let’s be real. It’s all retweets. And they’re from some very fervent and adoring fans. Not just about the shows either. They also like the loos (and the free tampons). And the writers’ snug. And the staff. And the music choices being pumped out in the bar. That’s all a good sign.

This trip was sounding more promising by the day. I just needed to pick a show. Any show.

I went back to the website, scrolling up and down the What’s On page, trying to figure out what would be the best option for me. Did I want poetry or political? An adaptation or a debut? I couldn’t decide. It was all very stressful.

But really, in the end, the best way to learn about the kind of work a theatre put on is to actually go there. Learn by doing and all that.

So I just picked a show, and booked.

Or rather, I cheated and booked two. In a double bill.

This blog is about the experience of going to the theatre and I was going to experience the hell out of The Bunker.

And, oh wow. It really is a bunker. Somehow this comes a surprise, despite the clue being in the name. Set back from Southwark Road, you slide down a long ramp that sinks below street-level until you get to a small door topped with one of those bunker-triangles that is now starting to make me think that this theatre has some illuminati tie-in.

Inside, water drips down the wooden walls and heaters try their damndest to fight against the chill blasting through the front door, but despite these grim conditions, The Bunker manages to avoid feeling like an air-raid shelter. In fact, I begin to think I might have been right the first time. This is a hipster bar in Shoreditch. I mean, let’s just examine the evidence shall we? We’ve got a circus colour scheme and faerie-lights to match. There’s a bar purporting to sell craft beers. Rugged wooden floors under our feet. And everyone here looks way cooler than me.

And like, not in a dungarees and beanie hat type of cool. But in a: I-work-in-the-theatre kinda way. I place a mental bet with myself that at least seventy percent of the audience tonight works in the theatre industry. I have no way of finding that out of course, but all the same, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win that bet.

I sign in at the box office. No need for e-ticket nonsense, I get given a paper wristband. Purple this time. I’m starting to build a collection. It will sit nicely against my BAC one. Purple and green. The suffragette colours.

Writstband acquired, I perch on the end of a bench and try not to lean against the wet walls as I listen in for theatre-related conversation.

“I am the patriarchy,” declares someone loudly.

The rumble of chatter stops.

A woman turns round in shock at such a blatant admission.

“Thank you!” she says. “I'd been wondering who it was! So happy to know it’s you!”

Well, I’m glad we got that sorted. But it doesn’t help me win my bet.

“The house is now open,” calls out a front of houser. “If you have a stamp or a wristband you can go straight through. If not, come see me at box office.”

Stamps for the light-weights only going to the first show of the night. Wristbands for the dedicated souls committed to seeing both of them… like me.

The three sides look like they each belong to a different theatre. On the right, the chairs have been pilfered from a pub somewhere. On the left, they definitely came from a board room. Whereas in the middle, we have colourful, squashy-looking benches. If The Bunker needs any help with their next round of comfort tests, I volunteer to tackle the centre block.

By the looks of it, The Bunker wouldn’t be short of volunteers, as we all headed for those soft and padded benches.

 

 

In my experience, a notepad in the lap of an audience member for a non-press night performance can mean one of two things. Either the director is making tweaks, or there’s a blogger in the building. Director or blogger. Director or blogger. I have a lot riding on this. As he flips the page, his sleeve rides up and I spot a flash of purple. Ha! Blogger.

Oh… wait. That’s not what I wanted. My chances of winning this bet are falling rapidly.

 

All ordered out for the changeover - if you don't have a ticket to bx clever but would like one you can upgrade at the box office

 

Should I buy a playtext? I really want a playtext.

They’re five pounds. Ten if I end up loving the second show too and want both.

I can’t afford it. Can I? No, I can’t. I have a freesheet. That’s enough.

It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.

 

Reviewer or director has a purple wristband

 

The f word which I know both the meaning if and the need to call it the f word word from my friend Helen

 

Box office keeps disappearing - buy h a radio alteagu

 

 

 

I'm doing all the drama schools at the moment. I was at rada the other night and guildhall last night

Read More

The Wanderer Returns

It occurred to me while I was walking through Old Street that I was doing the exact opposite of what I used to do all the time a few years back. Walking from Bethnal Green to Angel was a regular habit of mine, as I left work at Rich Mix and went to see a show at Sadler’s Wells. Now that I work at Sadler’s, I find myself doing the reverse journey, down City Road, past Moorfields Hospital, round the Old Street roundabout, through Hoxton, past Box Park and the chain link fence covered with padlocks, up to Sainsbury’s, across the scary road I was convinced would be the death of me one day and… there it is. The place that had been my home for a-year-and-a-half back in the day.

It had been quite the traumatic journey. Seeing all the things that had changed (and even worse, the things that hadn’t). The newsagent that used to sell the most delicious, and yet worryingly cheap curries didn’t seem to be there anymore. But the car wash operated by staff a little too enthusiastic with their hoses still was (my feet remembered to cross to the other side of the pavement long before my brain did). There was the printers where I used to run down to hand-deliver my mock-up of how I wanted a flyer to be folded (now I do it via emailed clips, filmed on my phone - how times change), but it was shut so I couldn’t go in.

As I stood outside Sainsbury’s, on the opposite side of the street, I tried not to pick out all the ways the building at changed since I was last there. But, I couldn’t help it. Those vinyls are new. And the light-up poster-boxes have from the windows. I wonder if… I had to check. I ran around the building to look at the back. There’s a wall on Redchurch Street that runs along the length of Rich Mix’s backside. When I worked there it got painted with the name. It was pure Instagram bait, and I wanted to get hooked.

The words Rich Mix were still there, but they were different. Gone where the bright and blocky 3D typography and instead there was a more old school graffiti lettering going on. Metallic silver against a dark blue.

Change is weird. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Oh well, there was no use crying over lost street art. It’s time to go in and face the box office.

There is already a queue to get into the main space down on the ground floor - usually given over to the music performances that most people know Rich Mix for.

I ignore that. We aren’t here for a gig. Not tonight.

“I’m here for Stolen?” I said. I don’t know why I said it as a question. “Surname is Smiles,” I added, as if I was just a regular punter who hadn’t worked here for 18 months. Thing is, according to the box office system, I was a regular punter on a first time visit. I actually had to create a new account. Well, who needs to book tickets online when they have a box office a couple of doors down?

“The doors won’t open for another ten minutes or so, but you can hang out down here or go to the cafe,” the guy on box office suggested. I plumped for hanging out down there and busied myself admiring the new poster designs - so much better than the ones I put together during my time there.

The cushioned bench seats that line the front window were the same though. Still as ratty looking as I remembered. Comfy though. I perched, and edited my Theatre 503 blog post while I waited for the house to open.

By the time I got to the end it was 7.23 and I was pretty sure the house must have opened. Seven minutes before start time is cutting it close. I looked around. There was still a queue to get into the main space. And another one for the lift. Had there been an announcement? Did Rich Mix even do announcements? I couldn’t remember. I doubt I ever listened to them even if they did. With a staff pass, open times is just a bad pronunciation of the German banking family.

I scooted past the list and headed for the stairs, following the red line that is laid out on the floor in true hospital-style to lead cinema goers through the convoluted route up a level, past the popcorn and then around the main space’s gallery before reached the cinema-wing of this cumbersome building.

After the first floor however, the line peels off, and I am left to do the long walk up to the fourth floor alone. Really alone, as every level I pass looks dark and deserted. Still, nice views though.

The door at the top of the stairs takes you to the foyer outside of the fourth floor loos. If you’re quiet you can hear the bangs and screams filtering through from the cinema screen on the other side of the wall.

We have no time for second hand car chases though, so I turn left, through the double doors, past the lift and… there we are. Theatre space on one side, and the bar and more, shall we say flexible space, or the other.

“Sorry, can I tear your ticket?” asks one usher as I grab a freesheet from the other. Always doing things in the wrong order, me.

The theatre is already packed. These people are better than me at gauging when to go upstairs. There clusters of people sitting on the aisle end of the bench seating. No one wants to sit at the ends. Which is silly. The benches are all of three metres long. They only sit six bums or so at a time. Middle or end, it doesn’t make much difference.

“We’re pretty full tonight so move down,” says a lady who very much doesn’t look like an usher. “If people don’t move down for you… make them.” Golly. Hard line. I like it.

“I don’t mind squishing through,” I say to the three people sitting close to the central aisle. I really don’t.

They stand up, but that doesn’t help much with the whole getting past them as now their legs are in the way.

“Oh, sorry - I thought you wanted to go to the end?” says one.

Well, yes, but…

But they are already moving down the row. Oh well. Middle seat it is for me, then.

Read More

At Home with the Sharky Twins

When did I last wash this skirt? I can’t remember. Was it clean this morning? Oh please god, let it have been clean on this morning.

Not the sort of thoughts to usually go through my head while watching a show, but as an actor gently gnaws on my knee, it’s the only thing I can think about. The ridges of her teeth leave only a line of pressure through the fabric of my (hopefully clean) skirt.

How on earth did I end up like this? With an actor biting down on my knee as gently as a puppy? Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

I was back in Battersea, after my epic run on three of BAC’s spaces on Friday night. I’d spent the whole day lolling around in bed and eating multiple meals composed of eggy-bread buried in icing sugar and was finally beginning to feel myself again.

Still, I wasn’t looking forward to doing that journey again.

Back down the Northern Line, all the way to Waterloo. Up the escalators, into the main concourse. Find a train going to Clapham Junction. Short journey there. Longer walk out of that labyrinth of a station. Walk up Lavender Hill towards BAC, turn a sharp right, then straight down Latchmere Road until I reach the Latchmere Pub.

Are we there yet? Not quite. Still need to negotiate my way across the busy junction so that I’m on the opposite pavement to the pub. Got to get those exterior shots, after all. Then back again. In the pub. Veer right, weaving through all the tables of Saturday-night revellers, then straight up the stairs and… there. We made it.

“Have you been here before?” asked the lady on both office after I gave my name.

“I haven't,” I admitted. I mean… you saw that journey itinerary. I’m a North London gal. If I spend too long south of the river, my haemoglobin levels start to drop.

She looked surprised. Although whether it’s because I have the look of a keen theatre-goer about me, or if it’s the fact that I might be about to faint after breathing in too much Battersea air just getting myself up those stairs, I can’t tell.

“Okay then,” she says, gearing up for what is clearly a practiced speech. “The theatre is just up those stairs,” she says, pointing over to her right where there is a flight of stairs covered in old Theatre 503 posters. “Seating is allocated.” She double checks the screen. “You're in A3. We're completely paperless so you don't need a ticket. It should be in the email we sent you. Did you get an email? I can write it down if you like.”

I did get an email. Lots of emails. Well, two emails. But they were great emails. Theatre 503 are definitely out there, fighting the good fight in making their theatre accessible.

First the confirmation email - with instructions on how to get there (including which entrance to the pub to use - nice touch for the anxious sorts amongst us. Me likey), how to pick up your ticket, and yes - the seat number.

Then comes a welcome email, which includes even more detailed instructions on the getting there (bus routes, stations, and parking) plus the added bonus of all those little things that so often go unspoken in our little club called Theatre. Latecomer rules. Bringing proof for concession tickets. The need to actually go to the box office on arrival.

They also, and this one surprised me, ask you to call the box office if you’re running late. When I saw this I was almost tempted to be late on purpose, just to call and see what happens. But yeah, my anxiety put its foot down on that one, and I turned up in plenty of time.

There’s also a follow up email. But we don’t care about that. We’re still at the box office after all!

“The house should open about 25-past,” continues the box office lady as if I hadn’t just gone on a 200 word tangent about emails. “So, you have time to go down to the pub and get a drink if you like. You are welcome to bring it in, but please no food.”

Didn’t I say Theatre 503 was doing the mostest?

“Can I take one of these?” I ask, noticing the giant pile of freesheets stacked up on the counter. I could. I take one, trying very hard not to notice the playtexts for sale.

That done, I go to sit down. There’s a very squishy looking leather sofa and I have my eyes set on it.

From this angle, deep in the embrace of the very squishy leather sofa, 503 could pass as someone’s living room. A very cool person, with an even cooler flat. But a living room none the less. There’s the squishy sofas (plural, there are two of them), a coffee table within leaning distance, and an equally squishy armchair just off to one side. By now I’m practically playing an imaginary episode of Through the Keyhole (“Who would live in a house like this,” says David Frost in my head as I contemplate the slither of kitchen visible through an open door). The bookshelf filled with playtexts may hint at a resident slightly more obsessed with theatre than the norm if you ignore the sign stating their price (a very reasonable £3.50).

The theatre bell ends my fun. The house for tonight’s performance of Wolfie was now open! A rush of regulars run to the stairs, no doubt still on unallocated seating time. I go with them, not wanting to miss the fun. The stairs creeks pleasingly under our pounding feet.

But I’m forced to stop in the theatre door.

That is no what I expected.

This was no pub-theatre blackbox, with a floor level stage and some battered furniture serving as a set. This theatre had a stage. And not only that, it had a set. A pastel coloured cloud that the two actors were currently using to bounce and turn against, like floating babies in the womb.

As my seat number, A3, might have hinted, I’m sitting in the front row. Not my preferred location, but for five pounds a pop, I could hardly say no.

This might have been a mistake.

Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville, the Sharky twins, as we are soon introduced, have absolutely no respect for the fourth wall. They are determined to tell us their story and they have no qualms about getting us involved.

As they are born, the front row can high-fived to celebrate their arrival into.

Their pockets are full of silver sequins, which they chuck liberally over us to demonstrate their pure, shining joy are being in this surreal world of theirs. Sequins coat my skirt, my boots, the floor. They tumble out of my hair.

You should sparkle for someone, they say. And someone should sparkle for you.

They sparkle for us. Sequins pour of them, littering the stage. They stick to their fingers and eyelashes.

Bubbles fall from the ceiling as the children of the forest tumble from the sky, taken back to the human world by a cynical woodpecker. Then burst on our cheeks with a cold kiss.

Balloons are handed to the audience, and planets are passed back.

Sophie Melville asks for a pen, and an audience member provides, lobbing it over our heads to land on the stage, where it is quickly picked up by Erin Doherty and inserted into her mouth where it is rolled around lavishly (it is later returned. Washed, I hope).

One audience member, deemed to have judgey eyes, is given a pair of sunglasses to contain the judginess. This is the second production of the weekend (and of Battersea) for the performances to insults the audience. I’m still not sure about that. But I’m sure playwright Ross Willis has thought more about this than I have. The judgey-eyed lady puts the glasses on, confused, but willing after a little encouragement from the twins.

And then there was the biting.

Sophie Melville, one of those falling children of the forest, abandoned to the trees for her father, is learning how to be a wolf. She runs, she hunts, she crawls between the stage and the front row, inspecting our legs, sniffing each of us in turn to see what kind of meal we would make.

My knee is deemed interesting enough to be worthy of further inspection. A bite. Gentle. She’s only a cub after all. And her teeth aren’t built for tearing. We all wait while a decision is made. No. My knee will not be dinner that night. She moves on to my neighbour.

I don’t know whether to feel honoured or offended.

Frankly, I think I should probably be grateful just to have survived.

I stumble back out into the night and somehow make my way back up the hill, feeling a little giddy. At the traffic lights, I check my phone.

From my pocket, stuck to my hand, is a round silver sequin. The little sparkle to accompany me home.

Read More

A Hundred Words for No

Watching theatre when you’re feeling a bit fragile is a risky business. Especially when the show you’re going to see is about teenage girls and dead dads.

But the siren call of “good writing,” was too much for me. And besides, I was feeling pretty good. The season brochure at work had come back from the printers lucky pretty damn slick if I do say so myself, the blog’s going well (hello!), and the marathon even better. I hit the one-third mark on Wednesday, which considering we aren’t even done with March yet is fucking impressive, isn’t it? I mean, yes, I do have a waiting list of theatres that I need to add to my Official Theatre List that lives on this website, so this victory is pretty short lived. But I was prepared to enjoy it while it lasted.

That was, until I was walking through the West End on my way to the Trafalgar Studios and it happened. You know. That thing when you find that you are no longer walking alone. You have someone walking with you. Keeping step. In a crowd of faceless strangers, one of them has all their attention trained on you.

“Oh god,” he says. “Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. That face. I’ve seen that face before.”

And look, I know it’s part of the female experience and all that. And it was fine in the end. He went away after I gave him a few short words (“Oh gawwwwdddd”) followed by a dismissive roll of the eyes. But still, there’s nothing like getting approached by a creeper on the street for making your skin feel like its suddenly two sizes too small.

I’d planned on popping by the Chinatown Bakery put I didn’t want to hang around. I strode down St Martin’s as fast as I could, clenching and unclenching my hand as I went, as if trying to shake off the memory of him.

Honestly, I’d rather hoped I would have aged out of that demographic by now. This type of thing didn’t happen to me when I was fat…

I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios feeling a little frazzled.

The foyer was rammed as the audiences of two shows fought for dominance.

I could barely make in it through the door. Usually I’d hang back. Let the first show of the evening, the one in Studio One, clear out. But I didn’t want to be outside anymore.

Queues to get out of the foyer crossed with the one at the bar on the other side. Both of them managing to block the box office on the far wall.

Breathing in, I aimed myself at a small gap and squeezed my way through, shooting out the other end like a log at the bottom of a flue ride in a water park.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles.”

The woman on box office nods and reaches for the larger of two boxes.

“It’s for 100 Words,” I add, feeling pretty pleased that I not only managed to remember the name of the show that I had booked that morning, but also could drop a nifty shortened version of it.

She grinned. “Thank you,” she says, grabbing the other box.

Working a single box office with two shows on an evening can’t be fun.

Although I have it on good authority that the Trafalgar Studios is a good place to work front of house. Well, good in comparison to other ATG venues. (“The pay is shit but they treat you nice,” was the exact wording).

Ticket picked up, it was my turn to join the queue to get out of this tiny foyer.

“Just down the stairs,” says the ticket checker when I make it to the doors. “The show is 75 minutes with no interval, so if you need to use the toilets I would suggest going beforehand as we might now be able to let you back in.”

I may still be feeling a little brittle, but even I can cope with sitting quietly in a seat for just over an hour.

I buy a programme while I’m there, and she deftly juggles to two separate show programmes and her money pouch as I exchange a five pound note for a programme and two pounds fifty in change.

Down the stairs, with their ceiling that looks like it’s been hewn from a rock in a fantasy film, and down in the basement, deep under Whitehall. This must have been what Churchill felt like heading down into his war bunkers. Safe, with all the chaos from above left far behind.

The Studio Bar does have a certain war-bunker feel to it, with it’s low ceilings and even lower lighting. The green light that emanates from the bar itself could serve as a makeshift banker’s desk lamp. You know the ones. With the green glass shades and slim brass stand that you always see in films set in the forties.

Even down here though, there isn’t much in the way of space. People lean against the railings next to the loos, and by the steps. But despite the overcrowding, there’s a calm, with just the gentle buzz of chatter.

“One minute left, ladies,” calls one of the female ushers into the women’s loos. “One minute for Admissions.”

I must tell you that Admissions is the play in Studio 1 before you think she was referring to the more bodily kind.

She comes back out and finds a male usher. “Can you quickly run into the men’s?” she asks.

A few seconds later a line of men emerge from their own aborted set of admissions. The women have set to make an appearance.

“Ladies! We are past the call for Admissions,” I hear from inside the women’s loos a few minutes later. Eventually, the audience for Studio One is coddled and wrangled and chivvied into their seats and the bar settles back down, the buzz of chatter now noticeably gentler and the seats now free for the taking.

But there is no time to enjoy that as that now Admissions is up and running, it’s time to get A Hundred Words for Snow warmed up. The house for Studio Two opens and we all dutifully file through the door and down the corridor to the smaller of the two theatres. Very much smaller. Studio Two is an actual studio, with only a hundred seats arranged in three sides around a small stage.

Suddenly, I feolt unsure.

I’d been brave that morning. I’d been feeling good. I told you about the season brochure looking well swish, didn’t I?

I’d been feeling so damn good, and so damn brave, I’d booked for the front row.

The front row, in this tiny, intimate theatre. For a one-woman show.

I didn’t feel all that brave anymore.

As the auditorium lights dimmed, Gemma Barlett came bounding out, all youthful energy and smiles.

She wasn’t the teenage girl I had been, but perhaps she was the teenage girl I had wanted to be. Or at least, had wanted to be friends with. A bit geeky. A bit silly. Charming and brash, but also awkward and self-effacing. And with great hair.

And she was off on an adventure. To the North Pole. With her dead dad tucked away safely in her backpack, following in the footsteps of all those male explorers and carving her own path as she went, all the while paying homage to the father she had loved…

The first tear was easy enough to wipe away. A smooth blink and it was gone.

But when one tear falls, there are bound to be more to follow.

And I was sitting in the front row.

As Gemma Barlett rubbed the dampness from under her eyes, I did the same. A second later she would turn round, all brave smile again, beaming at each of us in turn and all I could think about is… I hope she doesn’t see the tracks of eyeliner smeared across my cheeks.

Dead dads and teenage girls. Gets me every time.

[She bounces around, pressing her back against the seat and the jerking forward. I can feel the bench vibrating under my as her body shakes. She’s willing the show to end. I can feel the desperation pumping out of her. She’s looking around, her head swinging from one side to the other like a bull in the ring. She’s trying to find a way out. But the only exit is on the other side of the stage. There’s no way to get to it without interrupting the performance.

As soon as the lights dim she bolts from her seat, leaving bag and coat behind.]

 

Read More

Branching out

So, here's the thing. My marathon has rules. Not many of them. But they rules.Theatres only count if I can get to them by Oyster card. They need to put on actual theatre, or dance, or opera. They need to have publically accessibly performances, and I need to actually watch the show. You know all this. You've read my FAQ.

But there are the rules.

And then there are the rules.

The unofficial ones. The ones I don't publish anywhere because they only live inside my head. The ones that drive my booking decisions.

Throughout the marathon, I've been picking the shows I see with two things in mind. Firstly (and most importantly) I try and go to something that I'm actually interested in. Or the thing I have the most potential to be interested in based on what is on offer. This can be tricky, especially when theatres only announce their season a few months in advance. Do I book this semi-non-awful looking scratch night? Or do I hold out and hope they have some phantasmagorical musical later in the year? The second thing I try to do, is pick a piece that is in keeping with the general artistic values of the theatres. Where possible, I avoid hires (when an outside company pays money to show their work there, rather than being invited to perform by the artistic team at the theatre, or a work that is produced by the theatre itself), and I also avoid things that stand out - not because they look brilliant - but because they are so starkly different to the rest of the programme. If a theatre specialises in say, Restoration comedies, I don’t feel comfortable booking a night of political poetry, just because I fancy a bit of spoken word that week.

This can be tricky.

There are some theatres that almost exclusively programme cabaret or comedy, neither of which count towards my marathon, but are included because every so often they put on a play. Obviously, in these situations, I need to go with the play.

Other times, the options look so completely awful that I cannot, simply Can Not, bring myself to go to them. I hold on, waiting, hoping, begging them to bring something more within the realms of what I'm into, until... thank the lord. Something appears on their website.

So it was with the Rosemary Branch.

Months and months of interactive game nights filled their space, and I just couldn't do it. Not for the marathon. Not for you. Not for nothing. I’m sure they are just brilliant, but to quote the great Elle Woods: “Suffice to say, it was just wrong, all wrong. For me, ya know?”

And then, while doing by fortnightly blitz through all the website of the remaining theatres on my list, I spotted something. A scratch night. Theatre. Plays. Written by women. And it was free! My patience had been rewarded. I booked so fast I broke a nail (true story).

That sorted, I was off to the Rosemary Branch.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. Which is shocking as it’s a pub theatre within walking distance of my work. And I love a pub theatre within walking distance of my work! When talking pub theatres, Islington is the land of Milk & Honey (name of my pub theatre when I open it in Islington). So, I was more than happy to add another one to my mental roster.

After a short stop of a Paul on Upper Street I would my way down through all the wide streets of gorgeous terraced houses towards Shepperton Road. The dogs I pass along the way all crane their heads to get a sniff of the Pavot Poulet baguette I have in my bag. They’re right to. It does smell good (and taste good. Just had it for my lunch while writing this here post. Yum).

Turns out the Rosemary Branch is right next to a park, which would explain the number of four-legged friends I had made that evening.

On their website they claim to be a former music hall. From the outside, I can see no evidence of this. It looks pure London pub to me.

Inside, it’s quiet. Well, it’s early on a Monday evening, so I’m not expecting heaving crowds at the bar.

I look around, trying to work out what sort of pub theatre it is.

Oh yes. I’ve started classifying them!

From what I can tell, there are two sorts of pub theatres. There are the ones where the theatre is fully integrated into the life of the pub. Box Office is set up one end of the bar, and you’re expected to grab a drink and a seat before a bell summons you upstairs (see: The Hope & Anchor). The other keep their activities separated. Box offices are tucked away upstairs with their theatres. Pub patrons and different from theatre patrons, and never the twain will meet (see: The White Bear). Okay, that isn’t fair, I’m sure lots of theatre-goers pop down for a pint after the show, but we’re using broad brushstrokes to paint this picture here. I mean, at the Gate Theatre, a venue which is only above a pub in the very loosest sense, advises the audience that they can bring up a drink from the Prince Albert pub, no problem.

Then there’s the Vaulty Towers, which doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is, but is doing it anyway.

After a quick glance around, I pinned the Rosemary Branch as a one that is divided by a common venue. The door to the theatre (with a helpful large sign handing over it) is closer to the entrance that the bar.

The steps that lurk behind are lit by lined by faerie-lights and old posters, with more signage at the top leading you through the next set of doors (propped open by a heavy bust). If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Rosemary Branch, it’s the signage. It’s everywhere. From arrows guiding you in the right direction, to politely worded messages to advising you to keep away (“Dressing Room. Artists Only”). I liked it immediately. I mean, you know how much bad signage (or even worse: no signage) irritates me, so seeing it done well is incredibly pleasing.

“Do I give my name?” I asked the young lady positioned behind the box office counter.

“How many is it?”

“Just the one.”

With a nod she handed me a small admission token.

“We’ll ring the bell when it’s time to go in,” she says, indicating that I can wait in the next room.

There’s already a small group of young people in what I presume is the pub’s function room. There’s a bar on one end, with a glass drinks dispenser waiting on it, and a stack of glasses nearby. Massive sash windows line up on two sides, and the spaces in between are filed with plants and Tiffany-style lamps. There’s sofas, and armchairs, and a fireplace. It’s a lovely room.

“They didn't even ask my name,” whispers one young person when his friend arrives. By the sounds of it, she’s connected with the show. “They just gave me a ticket.”

“Probably means it hasn't sold very well,” she says with a shrug.

“Oops,” he giggles.

But more people arrive and soon there are little gatherings dotted around the room.

Soon enough the bell sounds and it’s the tinkliest little bell I’ve ever heard. So tinkle it must have brought a few faeries back to life all by itself last night.

I show the woman on the door my admission pass, but she just waves me through, not taking it from me. I still have in it my coat pocket.

“You can sit anywhere,” she says. “But it’s best to sit at the front.”

Choices, choices!

The Rosemary Branch theatre is very small. A true black box. But the unrelenting darkness of the walls is broken up by strings of lights on the ceiling and mismatched cushions on the chairs, give the room the feel of a Bedouin tent. Or at least an overpriced yurt at Glastonbury.

You know my feelings about the front row. But I took her advice to heart and sat in the third.

There’s a fine rake to the seating here, and the third row is just fine.

My row, and the two in front, fill up and I begin to regret my seat choice. The chairs are very close together and my shoulder is getting smushed into a wooden plank nailed to the wall.

Four short plays. All written by women. All acted by women too. All excellent, but with two major standouts to my tired eyes. Tiger Mum by Eva Edo and HoneyBEE by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. Both one-woman shows. Both performed by their writers. But otherwise completely different. A mother looking to protect her son against the world, and a millennial trying to find her place in it. A plaid shirt, and a sequined jumpsuit. A bus stop, and a festival.

Keyed up by exciting lady-theatre, I get up to leave. The rest of the audience looks like they are intent on hanging around. They all know someone in the production and are determined to celebrate.

I squeezed myself between their excited hugs and out I go, walk by the canal, tube it home, and am in bed by 10pm with a cup of tea and a chocolate éclair from Paul.

Life doesn’t get much better than that, my friend, now does it?

No, wait. It does. Apparently the Shrill Voices Showcase wasn’t a one off. It’s part of a series. Which means now I have an opportunity to go back to the faeries’ yurt… next year.

Read More