Shawly not

I’m on my way to the Shaw Theatre right now. And for once, I actually know where this theatre is. When the Northern Line crapped out last week, I had to get out at Euston and walk the rest of the way to work. A walk that took me down Euston Road as I headed into Islington. And as the red behemoth of the British Library loomed across my vision, I spotted something dangling in the way. It was a sign. For the Shaw Theatre.

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Do you know about the Shaw Theatre? I didn’t know about the Shaw Theatre. It seems to be one of those theatres that is connected to a hotel. Like the Savoy but less… just less. Less glamourous. Less well known. And less programming. It’s taken me over six months to find a marathon-qualifying show for me to go to.

The Shaw seems to be the type of place that those regional music acts tour to. You know the kind of thing. Tribute acts and theme acts and cabaret acts and showcase acts. The type of acts that only seem to exist in these type of theatres.

They also have that Tape Face bloke, but I wasn’t altogether convinced that his stuff counted as theatre. So I took a pass.

But not tonight. Oh no. Tonight, I’m going to be seeing Rent.

Which I am rather excited about because I’ve never seen Rent before. I’m actually not all that familiar with it. I know that one song. You know, the one with all the numbers that every musical theatre fan seems to be able to reel off with only the slightest provocation.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Modern. Glass. There’s some sort of massive sculpture action going on outside. A wire cage hanging above the carpark. Not sure what that’s meant to be but if it were being used as a prison to contain some supervillain or other, I would not be surprised.

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I pick my way through the cars and head towards the main entrance.

As I approach, the door opens, held by a young woman in Shaw Theatre livery.

Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had the door held open for me at the theatre before. Not by a dedicated door person anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this place really is as swanky as the Savoy.

“Hello!” says the young woman, all bright smile and welcoming.

I thank her, still slightly surprised by all these gentility.

She makes use of my disorientation to hold out a pile of stickers.

They have rainbows on them. And the name of the theatre.

That’s how to do Pride. With multi-coloured stickers. I approve.

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I thank her again, already feeling very positive about this trip. Getting the door held open for me and a free sticker? The Shaw is gunning for a top ten position in my end of year rankings, I can tell you that right now.

From there, I join the queue for the box office. It’s a rather long queue. And is moving very slowly.

Another young woman, this one wearing a smart blue jacket, makes her way down the line asking if we booked ourselves e-tickets.

The bloke behind me shows her a print out.

“Yup, that’s fine,” she confirms.

“So I don’t have to queue?” he asks, amazed at this revelation.

“No, you can use that.”

He trots off with his print out, very pleased.

“Ooo! Stickers!” comes a cry from behind me.

Heads turn, and soon the young woman on the door is besieged by people who missed out on the sticker action on their way in.

“Can I have a sticker please?”

“Can you get me one too, mum?”

Such is the power of a rainbow sticker.

From my position in the queue, I have a great view of the bar. It’s exactly the sort of bar you would imagine there to be in a hotel’s theatre. All dramatic hanging lights and stacks of mini-bar sized snacks hanging out alongside the bottles of more serious stuff.

A girl goes up to the bar and holds up a paper bag full of some sort of takeaway.

She asks the barman something, and after a moment’s thought, he takes it from her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she calls after him as he disappears through the back door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she repeats when he remerges a few seconds later.

I think he was putting it in the fridge for her, which I have to say, is not something I’ve ever considered asking bar staff to help with, at the theatre or anywhere else, but my god, what a good idea. Especially in this weather.

“Have you got an e-ticket?” asks the woman in the blue jacket, doing another trawl of the queue.

“I think I’m picking up,” I tell her.

“What’s the surname?”

I tell her, and she goes off to the front to double check.

I do the same, but on my phone, and bringing up the confirmation email remember that I paid an extra two quid for this privilege. Fucking hell. No wonder she’s asking about e-tickets so much. What kind of idiot would pay two quid for the pleasure of a paper ticket? Apart from me, but we all know I have issues.

A few minutes later, I’m at the front of the queue.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the lady on box office when she checks her computer for my booking.

I tell her that it is and a second later the printer behind the desk buzzes into action. She checks the ticket, folds up the ream, and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to explore.

Apart from the bar and the box office, there’s a seating area over by the entrance to the theatre. All red walls and old theatre posters and low settees. There’s also the most extraordinary carpeting going on. I mean, if I didn’t know this place had a hotel connection before, this carpet would tell me everything I need to know. It’s all floral and swirly, with another pattern going on underneath that I can’t quite make out. It’s like one of those Magic Eye posters from the nineties. I couldn’t make them out either.

The entrance to the theatre itself is closed off by a red velvet curtain. That combined with the old posters gives this place a very strange vibe. The modern hotel combined with the old school theatre. I’m not sure even the Shaw knows what this place is.

“Good evening,” comes a voice over the sound system. “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre. The house is now open. The house is now open.”

Now, you may say that I’ve been marathoning far too long (and I won’t disagree with you on that), but that message surprises me. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard a house open announcement that doesn’t mention the name of the show. You know: “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre for tonight’s performance of Rent…”

I wonder if the message has been pre-recorded. It would certainly make it easier for everyone with all those one-night shows that they have going on.

No one else appears bothered by this. They all crowd themselves towards the doors, heaving in close to each other until them become unmanageable mass of people.

I hang back and let them get on with it.

Seating is allocated. There’s no rush.

Eventually the queue clears, and I make my way in.

The first ticket checker barely looks as me as I pass through the curtain. She has no interest whatsoever in whether I have a ticket, or what it says on it if I do.

So I continue on, making my way through a dark corridor, with George Bernard Shaw quotes hung up on the walls, in what must be an attempt to justify the name of the theatre.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself,” one states. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says another. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that old Shawie-boy was a bit repetitive in his choice of sentence structure.

That makes me suspicious. I can’t for the life of me think what play either of these are from. Neither strike me as something the writer of Man and Superman would come out with. But then, I’m not a massive GBS fan, so, who knows?

I get out my phone and Google the first one and immediately find a page asking “Wait, did George Bernard Shaw really say this?”

The answers seem to suggest that no, he didn’t. But I don’t have time to research any further, because I’ve reached the other end of the corridor and there’s a ticket checker waiting for me on the other side.

“D23?” I ask, showing her the ticket.

“D23. You will be…” her finger traces the horizon of seats, wavering between the middle and final block of seats. “Hang on, let me show you.”

And with that she leads me down to the second aisle.

“Twenty-three did you say?”

“Err, yes,” I say, double checking my ticket.

She hops up a few steps to the fourth row. “You’re just in here,” she says.

“Lovely! Thank you!”

Whatever their questionable use of George Bernard Shaw quotes, you can’t fault the service.

Nor the seating. It’s very plush. Wide, squashy seats, covered in fuzzy velvet. Pretty lush.

Someone in the row in front turns around. “Do you know how long this is?” he asks.

My neighbour shakes her head. “Sorry, I just know its two acts.”

Yeah, no freesheets tonight. And no programmes.

Still, we got rainbow stickers.

I settle back in my seat and get comfortable.

The people sitting behind me are having some great theatre chat. By the sounds of it they are both musical theatre professionals and the gossip is flying. Lots of talk of “Cameron,” the joys of auditioning on a proper West End stage, and the perils of being second cover.

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As the lights dim, there’s a scurrying of movement as people move down to better seats.

A couple slowly make their way down from the back, clinging onto the rail as they go down the stairs, move across the front of the stage, and then sink into a pair of seats in the front row.

Thus settled, they start to enjoy the show. Really enjoy the show. The woman sways from side to side, waving her arms as she feels the music.

It’s rather beautiful.

As for me, I’ve just realised what Rent is. It’s La Boehme, isn’t it? That whole candle scene. I recognise that! That’s good. I feel on firmer ground now. Except I’m now worrying about what a potential wank I am that I’m more familiar with La Boehme then Rent.

As our Mimi (again, no freesheet, I have no idea who she is) gets down on her knees and Arghhh Oooos into the night, it’s simply too move for the lady in the front row. She just has to dance. She gets up from her seat and boogies her way into the corner, where she bows her head, puts up her arms, and moves to the beat, truly embodying the ‘dance like no-one’s watching’ mandate more fully than I’ve ever seen anyone do it before.

The man she’s with watches her for a moment, checks behind him to see how we’re talking it, beckons her back to her seat and then goes to speak to the usher.

They whisper to each other feverously, the usher and the man, with lots of pointing around the auditorium.

He doesn’t want his lady to stop dancing. Oh no. He wants to find her a place where she can get her groove on without disturbing anyone else.

The usher nods. She understands. And he returns to his seat.

A few songs later she sneaks into the front row, crouching down next to the pair.

She’s sorted something. She’s taking them somewhere.

So they go. Leaving their prime spots, our lady dances her way out of the theatre.

It feels strangely quiet now that we’ve lost our alternate cast member. But the performers up on stage don’t let us relax for long.

“Moo!” orders our Maureen. “Everyone this side: Moo!”

Everyone duly moos as ordered. Well, almost everyone.

I do not partake. I have audience participation intolerance.

But as our Mark jumps up onto a table, and the table tips, throwing him forward, oh, I gasp. I gasp along with everyone else. He recovers his balance just in time, throwing out his hand to show us he’s okay. And we applaud. How could we not after such a feat of daring do?

“Did you moo?” someone asks in the row in front once the interval hits.

“No!” comes the reply.

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one then.

The person from the row in front is outraged. “No? But you have to!”

“Can you believe they only had a week to do all that?” counters the non-mooer, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Aren’t they amazing!”

They are. But I still don’t know who they are.

Interval over and there’s a strangled squeal from the audience as the cast comes out. They know what’s coming. And I can guess. Yes, it’s the number song! 525,600 apparently. That’s a big number. How do people remember that? I never even managed pi to five decimals.

But it’s proper good.

And it’s sad.

And I might be sniffing a bit. A hint of watery eye. No, it’s okay. I’m not going to cry.

Oh poor Angel.

And poor Mimi.

Shit, I’ve gone. The first tear has fallen and there’s no stopping me now.

As the final notes ring out, we all burst from our seats into a standing ovation. I can’t believe it was only on Friday I was saying I rarely ovate. Only when a performance hits me in the gut, was my justification. Well, gut fucking hit. Full on bullseye right in the intestines.

I turn around, taking in the audience.

There, at the back, in the far corner, is our dancing lady. She’s still moving to the sound of the band as they play us out. Hands above her head, hips swinging. And the man she’s with watching her.

And I start crying again, because that’s love, isn’t it? Finding someone the space to be themselves and letting them go for it, to the fullest.

Fuck yeah.

 

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Glitter in the Rain

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

It’s all very troubling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Being Janet

8pm. A start time that promises so much when you have a companion to spend the evening with, hanging around in cafes and debating whether you can manage another drink before rolling yourselves over to the theatre. Less so when you are off for a date with no one but your stupid cough, and have two solid hours to fill before curtain up.

I decide to take a massive detour around the West End, checking out what was happening at the Dominion (nothing much) before making my way south of the river. But even after all that, I still arrived at Southwark Street, sore of foot and heavy of bag, with half an hour to spare.

I've never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory before. Tickets are outrageously expensive, and despite them pushing an early booking agenda, don't dip much before the mid-thirties. But I'm here now, due to having a ticket passed onto me by a friend who can no longer make use of it.

From the outside, it doesn't look like much. It's in one of those tall, old, stone buildings that could house anything from a bank to a squat.

What it does contain, as I find out on stepping off the street and into a small courtyard, is a restaurant.

Am I in the wrong place? I'd seen signs for the theatre but perhaps I had gone down the wrong way. I did think it strangely close to the other theatre on this street: The Bunker. Maybe I was supposed to go around the other way.

There were people sitting on a bench in the courtyard, all hunched over their phones with that collective boredom you see at bus stops hanging over them. One of them glances up and looks at me curiously.

Oh well, that was it. I had to go in.

There's a small sign on the desk oppostite the doors. Theatre and Bar it says, with an arrow pointing the way.

Thank goodness. I was in the right place.

I follow the arrow, which which we down a narrow path that curls it's way between busy tables, left then right, then right again, until I reach the other end of the room.

There's a door back here, covered in laminated A4 print outs. "Box Office & Theatre Entrance," one says. "Please mind your step," warns another.

I mind the step, and make my way through.

From the restaurant, I now seem to find myself in a pub. Not just a pub, an old man's pub. An old man's pub in some remote village. The ceilings are low and the heavy wooden beams make it feel even lower. There are brick walls and exposed wiring that should give it that Shoreditch edge, but somehow just make it look a little tired.

The bar is opposite. There's a long queue.

I can't see the box office.

I'm in the right place though. There are theatre posters on the walls. I may not frequent old man pubs on the regular, but even I know they don't tend to go for old theatre posters as decor.

I edge my way further in. There's a lot of people in here.

Ah, there it is. The box office. Hidden around the corner.

I join the queue.

There's only one person ahead of me, but he's taking for frickin' ever.

I spend my time darting forwards and back as people try to get past me to the few chairs remaining vacant.

"Yes?"

Oh good. Another person has jumped behind the counter.

I step forward and... shit. What was the name again? Not mine. Don't say that.

I manage to give Janet's surname. It feels weird and a bit wrong. Like I'm a spy in an undercover operation. Mission: Orpheus Descending.

It comes out sounding strained. There's no way he doesn't know that's not my name. I wasn't even slightly convincing. I'd make a terrible spy. And an even worse actor.

He starts looking through the tickets.

I tell myself that I'm Janet today, not Maxine. I need to think Janet thoughts: retro dresses, novelty prints, red hair, and Shakespeare.

Shit. He might ask for my postcode. Janet's postcode. I'd been rehearsing it the whole way over. All the way through the West End and across the river. And I couldn't recall a single digit of it.

"Janet?" he says, plucking out a ticket.

"Err..."

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

Oh, wow. Scrap everything I've ever said. I'm a great actor. And would make a fucking fantastic spy. No wait. Even better. I could act the fuck out of a spy-character. Sign me up for the next series of Killing Eve, because I've got this shit down.

I'm so pleased with myself it takes me a second to realise that the guy on box office is trying to tell me something.

I try to focus. It sounded like he sais the show was two hours and forty minutes, but that can't be right.

"The first act is one hour forty," he says. I must have pulled a face because he grimaces in sympathy. "Then there's a fifteen-minute interval, followed by a forty-minute second act. And there's no readmission."

"Christ..." I say, forgetting that I was supposed to be Janet. "Thanks for the warning."

I probably shouldn't have blasphemed. I don't think Janet does that.

Two hours, forty minutes. And a 8pm start.

Is this a thing now? When did it become a thing? When did long plays stop demanding early starts? Do people not need sleep in this town?

I buy a programme in an attempt to cover up my error. I have four pounds in my purse. Would Janet pay with the exact change or hand over a fiver? I don't know. Shit. This is terrible. I'm floundering. Cancel my Killing Eve audition. I'm not ready for this yet.

I hand over the four pound coins and scuttle away, intending to hide behind my programme.

There are no chairs going spare, but I spot a leaning table without any elbows attached to it.

I rush over, and dump my programme and purse on it, staking my claim before anyone else has the chance.

It lasts for precisely half a minute before a couple plonks down their wine next to me, and jostle me around to the other side.

"The house is now open if you'd like to take your seats," comes a call from the auditorium door. I hadn't noticed it before. There are curtains made of what looks like sailcloth. There are even metal rivets punctuating the edges.

I look around, trying to work out if they tie into a theme somehow. The posters, the beams, the exposed brick, and the whitewashed walls. And now sailcloth.

Whatever's going on, I'm not getting it.

But I do suddenly realise why I was getting such old-man-pub vibes from this venue. It is absolutely packed with old men. They're everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a high proportion of men at the theatre. Not even at that chemsex play at The Courtyard.

Is that the Menier effect? Or is it Tennessee Williams who's to blame?

"The show includes haze," continues to front-of-houser. He has to raise his voice over the din. "Loud gunshots..." No one is listening. His list of warnings trails away into nothing.

A bell rings. It's only a quarter to. I wait, expecting a proclamation to follow, but there's nothing. I'm confused. Was the bell a reminder for us to go in? Or final call at the bar?

The couple next to me are on the move again. I'm finding myself bumping against the next table.

It's time for me to go in.

I look at the ticket for the first time.

Row A.

Of course it is.

Janet is such a front-rower.

I mean, I am such a front-rower. Because I am Janet. Love the front row, me. Can't get enough of it.

There's seating on three sides here, and I'm in the bank on the far side.

I tuck my bag under my chair and have a look at the programme. Is a tri-fold number. Rather fancy. It even has production photos in place of headshots, which is a very nice touch that I've never seen before.

I look closer. Hang on. That's Jemima Rooper! I love Jemima Rooper. Loved ever since she broke my heart in The Railway Children. Fucking hell. And there's Hattie Moran! I love her too! And Seth Numrich! Blimey. This is one hell of a cast.

Janet knows how to book good theatre.

I mean, I know how to book good theatre.

Having two hours and forty minutes to gaze at this cast doesn't sound so bad. Not anymore.

But when Jemima Rooper comes out it is under a mask of makeup. White powder. Red cheeks. Black eyes. She looks terrifying, and I feel attacked. I've suspected that I've been rocking the white powdered, red-cheeked, and black-eyed look about five years longer than is really appropriate. But man, I can't stop. And neither can Jemima Rooper's Carol.

She dances around the shop that we are living in, swamped by her giant leopard print coat, daring people to love her, to hate her. So desperate for them to accept her that she can't help forcing them to reject her.

I'm staring at her so hard I'm almost embarrassed by it.

As the house lights rise for the interval, the front-of-house steps in front of our row, blocking us in.

"If you can walk this way," he says, indicating the front of the stage-area.

I follow his directions and head back out into the pub.

It's already full. There's nowhere to stand without getting bumped and shoved. I press myself against the wall, but it's no good. There's a constant flow of people making their way to the loos and every single one of them knocks me as they pass.

I go back into the theatre.

The set has changed. The tables have been rearranged.

There's no possible way to take the directed route

I walk right across the stage and hope the front-of-houser doesn't spot me. It's what Janet would have done. Probably.

Forty minutes left. It's not going to end well. I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Someone's going to die. I can feel it.

I hope it's not that nice Seth Numrich. He's so handsome.

Or Jemima Rooper. Not sure I could deal with seeing her go down.

Hattie Morahan I can cope with.

Except, nope, I really, really can't.

Oh, god. This is dreadful. Why are people so awful? I can't stand it.

I want to close my eyes, but I'm frightened that something will happen if I do. Not that I'll miss it, you understand. But that the very act of closing my eyes would provoke it. As if my being witness is the only thing holding the bad things at bay.

But I must have blinked.

Because the bad things come.

As inevitable as the sunrise.

It takes a long time to get out of the theatre. Plenty of time to listen in to my fellow play-watcher's conversations.

They're all talking about it as if they just read it in a textbook. As if it wasn't the most emotionally shattering thing to happen to them.

I hate them, and want to get away from the,, but there's only one exit, and I'm at the back of a very long queue.

"It would be terrible if there was ever a fire in here..." someone says.

Terrible, and yet I long to burn everything down.

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…

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Chicken Soup for the Sausage Roll

“You can wait here if you like. The house should be opening any minute now.”

I’m the first one there. Which is a good thing, as the foyer space of the Jermyn Street Theatre is only big enough for one. Can it even be classed as a foyer? It’s certainly not intended for lingering. Perhaps the more appropriate word is a landing. And I do feel like I’ve landed there.

“Thanks, it’s awful outside. Hailing.”

The sudden downpour of stinging hail stones is the reason for my early arrival. When it came to deciding between digging an umbrella out of my bag, and just legging the remaining distance to the theatre, I plumped for legging it.

That may have been a mistake.

My legs are now legged out and feeling a touch wobbly. This body was not made to run.

Balancing here, on that landing, I manage to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. From the outside, the Jermyn Street theatre is a slip of a thing - a small slither slide in between a pizzeria and a clothes shop.

But step through the door and you are taken down below the streets of Piccadilly via a sparkling silver stairway.

The honking horns and hard hailstones that fill the thick air above are left behind, and I’m left recovering and slightly out of breath on the landing.

I’d been to the Jermyn Street Theatre (from here on in, the JST) before. But so long ago that I still manage to be shocked by just how titchy tiny wee it is. The box office is a proper little hole in the wall, but when the house is opened I find that the bar is to.

“Drink, ice cream, programme?” asks a lady from behind her small window. “There’s no interval, so now is your opportunity.”

I go for a programme, which turns out to be a proper playtext. I fucking love a playtext.

With the theatre to myself, I can get some proper pictures taken. But with only four rows of seats, this doesn’t take long. And with allocated seating, the rest of the audience is in no rush to turn up.

With a theatre this small, I’d usually expect there to be strings of fairy lights on the walls. Perhaps some cutsie signage pointing to the loos. But there’s none of that. Beyond the silver stairway, the decor is fairly spartan. The JST doesn’t go in for all the hipster aesthetic stuff.

So, I settle in and play my playtext game - finding a line near the end and seeing if I remember it by the time we get there in the show. Not much of a game, but it’s always nice to have something to look forward to during a rubbish performance.

Not that I was worried about that.

I was here on a recommendation. A Twitter recommendation. Which are often terrible, but this one was from someone who knew I’d loved Hundred Words for Snow and wanted to make sure that I knew the writer was currently directing this play. I didn’t. And I was more than grateful for the information.

Even better, the director was in that night.

How do you say hello to someone who broke your heart? On the list of awkward conversation starters it has to be right up there with your STD test results and telling them you ran over your dog.

After a short internal debate, I decided the best course was the simplest: Keep it real. “Hello. I’m Max. You smashed my heart into smithereens. Thank you.”

There. That wasn’t too bad. I didn’t even cry.

And people are starting to arrive now.

“I’m just going to pop to the toilet,” says a man as he walks in.

“Not that one though,” laughs a woman in reply, nodding towards the stage, where there’s a projected sign proclaiming TOILETS over one of the doors.

“Umm…”

“Is it... No!”

Yes! That door marked Toilets leads to the actual toilets and you need to cross the actual stage to get to them.

“The performance will begin in three minutes,” comes a disembodied voice over the tannoy. “The toilets are now closed.”

Sure enough the projected sign dims. The bar’s cubby is shuttered.

 

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Confused Hearts and Coronets

I'll say this for the marathon. It's transformed my friendships. Gone are the days when the people I love treated me like a fellow human being, one who can get up, get dressed, and arrive on time at a shared destination. Over the past few months they've all come to realise that this year, I'm basically a spreadsheet in a dress. What to spend time with me? Put your name down in the appropriate column.

They've also all changed the way they talk to me. They don't ask how I am anymore, they ask what I've seen. The answer is pretty much the same anyway.

And as each theatre trips begins to merge into the one before, they've all stepped up to fill in the gaps in my rapidly diminishing brain-power.

"I'm in Pret by exit 2, which is the right exit for the Coronet," messages Helen.

That's the kind of meet-up message I like right now. Clear. Concise. And requiring no thought processes at all from my end. At Notting Hill Gate, I followed the signs, left by exit two, practically fell into Pret, and found Helen.

"I was there, but I had to leave," she explains as I offer her a Nutella taiyaki. "There was a table, which I presumed was the box office. But when I said my friend had booked the tickets, they said I could wait. But there weren't any chairs? So... I left."

Replenished by our pastry fishes, we make our way to The Print Room at The Coronet, just a few doors down.

"Has it had something done recently?" asks Helen.

I have to admit ignorance. It did look very shiny and fancy though. Bigger than I had imagined. With bright paintwork and gleaming windows, and those narrow wooden doors that you find on old West End theatres.

"It does look very fresh," agrees Helen.

It smells fresh too. Or floral at least. Was it the small bunch of flowers on the tasteful side table? That didn't seem likely. Real flowers haven't smelt of anything since 1974.

"Did they... spray perfume around?" I ask the world in general.

The world doesn't have an answer for me.

"Look at this," says Helen, pointing out a hanging display in the middle of the foyer and proving her worth once again as an excellent marathon companion. Always pointing things out for me to photograph, and then getting out of the way of the shot with seamless grace. Still not entirely sure what the display was, but I liked it.

I liked everything about The Print Room's foyer. And there was lots to enjoy. From the black and white tiled floor, to the cushions neatly tucked up against the marble stairs, to the...

"What is that? Is that a ruff?"

"It is some kind of ruff," agrees Helen, going over to inspect the mannequin wearing a lacy collar. Now I love a ruff. I even own a ruff. But no one in the entire world appreciates a ruff like Helen appreciates a ruff. If there was a magazine called Ruff It, Helen would be the editor.

The presence of a mannequin wearing a lacy collar in the foyer of The Print Room was not explained. But remains only one of a thousand mysterious objects we discovered on the way to our seats.

Up the stairs was a wood-panelled corridor, curving around the auditorium.

Freesheets were balanced on tiny side tables, weighed down by books and other assorted items. There were decanters, and tea lights, and even a globe.

"Says a lot about Notting Hill that they can leave all these knick-knacks lying around," she says, as she acts the photographer's assistant, repositioning a flyer into a more eye-pleasing position.

"Wow... that's... wow." I might not have said it out loud, but I was definitely thinking that as we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the auditorium. It was like Stratford East and Wilton's Music Hall had somewhere found their way to each other across Tower Hamlets, and made a baby together.

Still gaping in awe, I show our tickets to the usher.

"Right, so if you go up the stairs until row f..." she says before giving instructions so detailed I was beginning to think Helen might have called ahead to warn them about me.

"She knows we're not Notting Hill natives," I whisper to Helen as we make our way up the stairs. "Probably thinks we'll eat our tickets when she's not looking."

We squeeze our way into row f.

"Christ, there's like... zero leg room," I say, as my knees bash against the seat in front.

"Wow, there really isn't," said Helen, managing to somehow tuck herself neatly into the seat next to me, despite having a full two inches on me height-wise.

Not having legroom is not something I encounter all that often, considering I'm all of five-foot-three (and a half, but I don't want to be one of those twats who adds fractions to their height, or their age).

I wriggle around, trying to get my legs to fit, but it isn't happening. I was going to have to make peace with one knee or the other getting smooshed that evening. I decided to sacrifice my right knee, and twisted slightly to the left.

In an attempt to distract myself from the protests of my already suffering right knee, I take a photo of the stage. "It's just all black," I say as I inspect the image.

"Even with you new camera?"

Helen has had to sit through a lot of explanations about my I love my Pixel 2. "Even with my new camera," I sigh.

"Do you think that's a backdrop, or a curtain?" asks Helen, referring to the black cloth that's messing with my photos.

"You think there's a whole stage behind there? That would make this place enormous."

"It is a big stage," says Helen, looking around. "For not that many seats."

"Good for dance, I suppose."

"Yeah... do they do a lot of dance?"

I couldn't answer. I have no idea. We were there for a dance performance. The Idiot by Saburo Teshigawara & Rihoko Sato. But apart from that, I had no idea the level of their dance programming.

"What was this place?" she asks. "Was it like a cinema or...?"

Again, I don't know.

"You mean you don't research every theatre carefully, giving all the stats in a neat sidebar?"

"No. That's Wikipedia."

Having now read the freesheet, I can tell you that The Print Room started in a former, well, print room and since moved into The Coronet. Hence The Print Room at The Coronet. But still squished in my seat, I didn't know that. I don't think it's just the late nights and constant bombardment of theatre that's making me dim. I think maybe, just maybe, I was always a little bit ignorant.

The lights dim, and stay dim, long after the start of the show. Dancers scurry through the darkness, leaving only a hint of shadow and footsteps to show where they'd been.

"When the lights didn't come up, I did wonder if it'd stay like that for the whole performance," said Helen as we made our way out.

"God yes. I felt like one of those annoying old people at the Opera House who complain that modern ballets are too dark."

"Yes!"

"I was trying to convince myself that if I can't see anything, it was because the choreographer didn't want us to see anything, but then also... I did kinda wonder if something was broken."

"And there was someone frantically flicking switches backstage. Yes, I thought that too."

"What is that?" I ask as we pass a knick-knacked alcove in the foyer. "Is it a bar or..."

"I don't think it's a bar," says Helen.

"Well then, what is it?" We duck in to examine the paintings and a little figurine of a beetle lurking within. "I mean I like it..."

"I like it to."

"But what is it?"

"No idea," says Helen. "And these cushions... they're everywhere," she says, pointing to a black and white cushion portraying a close of a vintage looking face. They were everyone. On chairs and sofas, yes. But also on the staircase and the floor.

"They look like those expensive candles you can buy in Liberty."

"Yes. And plates and things too. Fornasetti," she says.

"Pornasetti more like," I say, feeling more than a little smug about my pun. "They always look a little bit dirty." Not the ones in The Print Room, mind you. Very PG in their cushion choices, I must say.

I frown. "Was that piece based on the Dostoevsky, do you think?"

"I have no idea."

"I haven't read it."

"Nor have I, but I always think with these things, when art is transferred between medias, you shouldn't have to read the source text, It should stand up on its own."

"I don't even know who the characters were. I'm pretty sure he was in love with the woman in the satin skirt."

"Did you? I thought she was a figment of his imagination."

That hadn't even occurred to me. "Okay. But who was the other one? His mother? His sister? His wife?"

"They didn't really interact enough to demonstrate a relationship."

"I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it. But like... as an abstract dance work in drama costumes."

"I don't have an opinion. And you know me, I always have an opinion..."

It's true. She does.

Not for the first time, I'm grateful for my marathon being about describing the experience I have at the theatre, rather than reliant on reviewing what I see. I don't have to have an opinion. Opinions are not obligatory. So, I'm not gonna have one.

Goodnight.

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Marley's host

Get talking shop with anyone who works in theatre and eventually (with the aid of a few G&Ts) you'll discover that they all have something in common. A dream venue. No, not to visit. I mean to work for. A career goal, if you will.

If you’re really paying attention (and haven’t been hammering down the gins yourself) you’ll notice that the one that they go all gooey for is rarely the one that they actually work for.

I don't mean to suggest that we're all in the wrong jobs. It’s not as if we’re a pile of chess pieces scattered over the board by someone too young to learn where the horsey one is supposed to go. Just that... it's hard to fantasise about a place once you know what the office kitchen looks like.

Anyway, the venue that makes me go all cow-eyed is the Bush Theatre.

And I have my reasons. A few, actually. Firstly, I love their programming. All that tasty new writing. Yum. Secondly, they have cats. And thirdly… I can’t remember thirdly. Let’s just go back to the cats, shall we?

Pirate and Marley. Both originally from rescues from Battersea, they are now twin-holders of the Resident Cat title at the Bush. Which just goes to show the commitment to promoting talent that the Bush goes in for.

Both Pirate and Marley have twitter account, but are a bit lacks about keeping them up to date (can’t blame them, it can’t be easy typing without thumbs). They also have their biographies on the website’s staff list.

Oh yes - that was thirdly! Their style. And by that I mean their house style. Tone of voice. Use of language (both clean and charming - the winning formula). Branding. The whole lot. Bush marketing team - I think you’re just swell. People don’t say that enough. Creatives get complimented all the damn time. Box office gets a fair smattering too. But marketing? Never.

I see you though. Doing to work. Fighting the good fight.

Even if you don’t tweet enough about the cats.

Without a steady feed of Pirate and Marley news on my social medias, I was excited to go right to the source!

One problem. Pirate and Marley are not theatre cats. Not in the traditional sense. They don’t hang out in the bar, snooze on the box office desk, or get under the feet of the ushers. As far as I can tell from studying what photos are posted of them, they seem live up in the office. So, if anything, they are theatre-office cats.

Which is great. I’m fully in support of this. Not everyone is cut out to work front of house. But it does mean that the only way to see them is… well… to work there.

That is why I am so keen to work here…

Hang on. Sorry. This isn’t a job interview.

Where were we?

Right. The Bush. Not in the office. But at the box office.

"Which show are you here to see?"

Oh no, that ol' question again.

I don't think anyone can truly expect me to remember the names of the shows I'm going to see this deep into the marathon. Not just like that. While I’m standing there. At the box office. I need spreadsheets, and calendars, and diary reminders.

I frowned as I thought hard.

I could remember the poster.

A woman. Smiling. And ice cream. Melting.

I was fairly confident that there had been sprinkles.

That didn’t help.

Or did it? Could I just say the ice-cream show?

The poor box officer was beginning to look concerned.

Nope. I couldn’t say the ice-cream show. If I did, concern would transform into downright alarm.

Right. Name of the show. Focus. It had two words. One of them a grammatical article. Other than that...

"The one in the studio?" I chanced, ninety percent sure that was the case.

As she reached for the box it came to me.

“The Trick!” I said triumphantly at the same time as she said: “The Trick?”

Clearly I’m not ready for the Bush. Clean and charming my words are not. Moth-balled and half-forgotten more like.

In search of better words, I headed towards the library. Oh yes, the Bush has one of those. Because they are perfect. I bet they even have a nice kitchen.

The show in the main house had already gone in, so I was able to nab a table to myself to sit and gaze happily at the bookshelves before the studio opened.

There are books everywhere at the Bush. Not just on the shelves, but above the bar, on the walls, and filling up every windowsill. Forget working here, I am fully prepared to move in.

Too soon came the tannoy announcement that it was time to head in.

“If you would fill up the middle block and not cross the stage,” said the lady on ticket duty. “Fill up the middle block and don’t cross the stage. Did you catch that? Middle block. Don’t cross the stage.”

My turn.

“Can I get a playtext?” I asked before she could tell me about the middle block. No programmes for this show. But proper playtexts at programme prices.

She switched gears instantly, organising change while checking tickets over her shoulder “Middle block, please!”

“Thanks,” she said, as we exchanged paper money for paper playtext. “And-“

“- middle block, don’t cross the stage?”

“Right.”

As I headed into (to the middle block, careful not to cross the stage) I heard her giving the same instructions to the people coming in.

It did the job.

The middle bloke was nearly full, and the stage untrodden by our mucky boots.

It was my first time in the studio. I don’t know why, but I suppose that’s the whole point of this marathon. Forcing me to go where I haven’t been before. Even if that is literally just down the corridor from one of my favourite venues in London.

It’s small, as you would expect a studio to be. Seating on three sides - four rows in the middle block, and two either end - leaving an intimately sized stage space in-between. Intimate enough to open a show with slight-of-hand tricks. Intimate enough to feel the pressing power of the words. Intimate enough to nod along at the truth of them. Intimate enough to laugh. And cry. And not be embarrassed about either.

The vibe was relaxed. Comfortable even.

So comfortable that when the dreaded call came - for a volunteer from the audience - the show managed to avoid that ripple of tension that so often follows these requests.

A hand went up from the stage-left block. A volunteer! Our knight in shining armour was a young man in a dark tracksuit. And he performed admirably.

Show over, you only have to stumble out of the building and you are already at the traffic lights that will take you right over the road to the Shepherd’s Bush Market tube station. And then home.

Perfect.

Although now I have the rather awful task of trying to decide what my second, and final, trip to the Bush will be in 2019. Perhaps Pirate and Marley would offer my a private consult to help me choose? I’m sure they have excellent incite on the matter…

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The importance of being invisible

There’s a school of thought amongst theatre-people, or more specifically, theatre-journalists, that arts venues should be integrated into the daily lives of the community. Not just serving the locals, but being right there, amongst them, in the most literal, physical sense.

The Guardian for one have been banging on about it for a decade now. Ever since the financial crisis - just over ten years ago. Get all those empty high street shops, and hand them over to some artists to play with.

Which, I suppose, is exactly what Tara Theatre did. Except 20-odd years before we’d even heard of sub-prime mortgages.

Before Tara Theatre was Tara Theatre is was a chiropodists. And before that an opticians. And before that, a drapers.

I know all this because I looked it up.  Because it was the least theatre looking theatre I'd ever seen. And I've been to a theatre on a barge.

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Part of a terrace of shops, and still sporting its large shop window, it blends in nicely with all the other businesses on Garrett Lane.

Which may go some way to explaining how I managed to walk right past it. Twice.

Thankfully, I was alone in my lack of geographical awareness, as the foyer was packed when I did eventually manage to fgure out that this lovely well-lit cafe was actually a lovely well-lit theatre.

To be fair to me though, as theatres go, the cafe elements are strong in this one.

From the bank of bottles behind the box office, to the neat little table and chairs in front of that window, to the reading nook, and the jar of cookies on the counter.

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I stared at the cookies while I waited to collect my ticket.

They looked good. They looked really good.

They had Smarties on them.

Thankfully, just as I was about to break out my purse, the queue cleared and I was next in line.

Ticket acquired it was time to explore.

Which, given that the front of house areas are all fitted into a floor space meant to contain a drapers, takes a surprisingly long time. Most of which was taken up by the tiny garden. Covered by a Mark of Zorro of multi-coloured fairy lights and dotted with small tables and chairs, the Tara terrace really is the most delightful spot. Even if the frighteningly warm February weather had forsaken us and a more appropriately spring-like chill had taken over.

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 “Another big set of Indian doors,” cried out a woman as she stepped out into garden. “Look!”

The man she was with looked as he was bid, and then, without another word, they both turned around and walked back inside.

The doors were very impressive. As were the ornaments that decorated the walls, high enough that they blocked any hint of the busy street beyond. I can just imagine it would be the perfect place to bask in the summer.

Not so much in February. But I basked anyway.

It was almost a shame to say goodbye to it and head into the theatre.

The huge, carved Indian doors that lead through to the theatre space had been flung open.

With the bare brick walls and high ceilings, it could have looked like any fringe venue in London. But trust old Tara to do things differently. High up on the walls are massive carved shutters, sitting on runners just waiting to be pulled back by bright red ropes.

As I snapped some photos, something else red caught my attention.

A paper napkin. Doing its very best to envelop the thickest cookie I had ever seen in my life. It was topped with Smarties.

My row was filling up. There was no way to get out without disturbing them. I was stuck in my seat. Without a cookie.

The cookie owner sat in the row in front of me. I stared at his cookie longingly, regretting every life decision that are led to me sitting there, cookie-less.

Just as I was thinking these thoughts, the cast came in (all two of them), introduced themselves (as Ayesha and Kudzanayi) built the set (put up a banner), introduced the play (The Importance of Being Earnest), and started shaking hands. 

Oh. 

That wasn't a good sign. 

Hand shaking this early on was a clear indication that there would be high levels of interaction later on. 

I was right. 

The hand shaking was followed up by the offer of invisible cucumber sandwiches to those sitting in the front row.

I was not in the front row. 

I did not get an invisible cucumber sandwich. 

Don't get me wrong. I would rather not have an invisible cucumber sandwich, but if I did get one, I'm fairly certain I would have eaten it.

Whether it was extreme politeness or some other reason, every single person in the front row took a sandwich and then abstained from eating it. I don't know what happened to them (it's hard to keep track of invisible foodstuffs) but I like to imagine that they all got swept away at the end of the night.

"Untouched, again!" the stage manager would say with a disapproving shake of her head. "Such a waste." And then with a heavy sigh they'll be disposed of in the brown bin.

Anyway, more fool them I say, because the front row was soon called upon to provide all sorts of assistance, and they could have done with the sustenance. From acting the flowers to Cecily's watering can, to playing actual roles with actual lines, this was a production that involved getting, well, involved

So much so that the house lights stayed on throughout, in an artistic decision that theatre people might call "shared light," (in that the actors are working by the same light the audience are in) but around here I call "really fucking uncomfortable."

I froze, and prayed to the theatre gods that Ayesha and Kudzanayi wouldn’t need to look deeper into the audience for their helpers.

It was very stressful maintaining such stillness. Especially when you need to laugh.

That is, until the tongue clicking started. 

Both determined to fill the role of Lady Bracknell and resigned to sharing it, Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford both gave her a characteristic cluck that sent tingles racing across my scalp. Yup, for the second time in this marathon, I'd had my ASMR triggered by a play.

So relaxing. I unfroze and allowed myself to laugh along properly.

Which certainly helped distract me from the sight of the young man sharing his cookie with his companion. 

That cookie really did look very good.

Although, saying that, it does strike me as a strange sort of snack to have in the theatre. Can't think why though. My reasoning is probably based on it not being a traditional theatre foodstuff, like ice cream and overpriced wine. If I started seeing cookies consumed around the West End, no doubt I would thinl it perfectly normal in a matter of months. I mean, it's quiet, self contained, and doesn't cause too many crumbs. Why shouldn't we all eat cookies to accompany our play watching? 

Nicki, who you might remember from the Adelphi pie-eating-trip, regularly sneaks baked goods into theatres. I say sneaked, but according to her, the bag checkers wave them through easily enough. They're on the lookout for sandwiches. No. Seriously. That's what they've told her. Fondant Fancies are fine, but baguettes are banned. 

No mention on the status of invisible sandwiches. Presumably they get through without being spotted.

The play over, I retraced my steps, trying to get the photos I'd missed on the way in. 

Two months into my marathon and I've become very brazen. I even asked an usher to move so that I could get a photo of those carved wooden doors.

Once I'd thoroughly annoyed everyone, in was time to go. 

But, I still had one bit of unfinished business to take care of.

"How much is the cookie?" I asked at the bar.

"£1."

Well, that settled that then. I was having me one of those.

"Having a cookie?" laughed a perfectly strange man as I tucked it away in my bag. 

Honestly, I don't see why anyone is interested in what people do or do not choose to eat. As if they have nothing better to occupy their thoughts with...

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Pixel this

Praise the theatre gods, I got a new phone!

No more will you have to suffer through my dimly lit snapshots.

I’m sad to see my HTC go, but it was time. He was suffering. He couldn’t stay awake while not supping on a charger, and his camera whirred and clicked every-time he tried to use it. It was a cruelty to keep toting him around with me to the theatre every night. RID, my friend. Rest in a drawer.

And, not to sound cruel, but once I’d made the decision to let him go, I didn’t hang around for long before getting a new one. I was off to Argos before work and treated myself to a Pixel. Gen 2. I’m not made of money. But still, they’re known for the quality of their pics taken in low-lighting, which is just what I need for this marathon. Theatres tend to be dark places.

And, oh baby. What a difference it makes. I spent the entirety of my walk to Wilton’s Music Hall taking pictures of, well everything - street signs, architectural details, graffiti…

What? Okay, okay, okay. I hear you. No, seriously, I do. “What are you blathering on about, Maxine?” you say. “is this a sponsored post? Are they paying you, Max? Have you sold out? Stop with the corporate shilling and start writing about Wilton's Music Hall. I love Wilton's Music Hall!"

Yeah, well. I already knew that. 

And you know how I know? 

Because everyone loves Wilton's Music Hall. It's the default emotional setting when you think about that place. Not loving Wilton's Music Hall is like not liking puppies. Or chocolate. "Do you like Wilton's Music Hall?" is probably one of the six questions on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (the other five are just: Are you sure you don't like it? No, but really? Have you even been there? Final answer? Okay, but what are your thoughts on puppies?

You know what people said when I told them I was heading off to Wilton's for the evening? "I loooovve Wilton's."

Every. Single. Time.

And every single time it was said exactly like that. With the elongated looooovvvve.

After a while, I began to feel like I was stuck in an episode of Russian Doll, but with less dying and smaller hair.

So what I’m saying is - don't be thinking you're original.

Ya Basic.

We all love Wilton's Music Hall. It’s the pumpkin spice latte of theatres. Mostly because it turns us into a gaggle of overexcited Valley Girls when we talk about it.

And don’t worry. I’m not exempt from the love fest. I’m right there with you. Metaphorical iPhone in hand (I told you about the Pixel, right?), and not quite so metaphorical Ugg boots on my feet.

When I finally traipsed all the way over the Whitechapel I spent countless minutes taking photos of the exterior, with its heavy red-painted shutters, huge double doors and flipping massive carriage lamp.

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Everything about Wilton’s seems oversized. Even the alley it lives in is as wide as a boulevard. Standing outside it you feel like you’ve been transported to a model village, where the scaling is just ever-so slightly off. The details made too big to accommodate their maker’s clumsy human hands.

Feeling like the Major of Toy Town, I pushed the door open.

Inside, low ceilings combined with bare stone walls and a creaking staircase to give the air of a provincial castle. Iron bars block off wall apertures that could surely have imprisoned a witch in another age. Shadows dart around corners, giving the constant nagging thought that there’s a sword-fight happening just out of sight.

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Perhaps they were, as I was there to see Pirates of Penzance, there might well have been some last minute rehearsals going on backstage.

Although it’s hard to imagine anyone smashing a sword on a person's head in this place. Everyone is so damn happy.

Whether I was blocking their access to cupboards, or sneaking into the balcony so that I could take some photos from up there, everyone went out of their way to be kind and gentle and apologetic.

Apologising to m. As if I wasn't the irritating twerp with a new phone, getting in their way. 

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I was beginning to think the powers that be at Wilton's, Mister Wilton if you will, must be putting something in the water.

I was there on a press ticket, and with it I’d been given a drinks voucher.

Did I dare use it? Would I come out of there humming Gilbert and Sullivan and wishing my gallant crew a good morning?

I really should, I thought, trying to convince myself. It’s all part of the experience, ain’t it? If I can review interval pie, then I should damn well review pre-show wine.

But I like pie. And I don’t like wine.

I stared at the voucher a good long time before deciding I wasn’t going to risk it. I was heading straight to my seat.

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“Row G,” said the lady on the door as she checked my ticket. “You’re just there on the left.”

She beamed, her smile as wide as a Pret barista. “Just past that twirly pillar over there.” I looked over and found the pillar. It was twirly. I must not have looked confident about the existence of the twirly pillar, because she carried on. “Do you see that girl with the white shirt? You’ll be near her.”

“Got it,” I said hurriedly, before she started offering to take my hand and personally escort me to my seat.

By the time the interval rolled around, I understood.

It was the show.

Happy shows make for happy audiences. And happy audiences lead to happy ushers.

It’s just maths.

And Pirates of Penzance is a very happy show.

The type of happiness that can only be felt when everyone involved is faking it.

Fake moustaches. Fake eyebrows. Fake ladies…

Ah yes. The fake ladies. 

Is there any greater sight than an entire ensemble of dashing young men swishing onto the stage wearing crinolines? If there is, let me die in ignorance of the existence of such a spectacle, because it would surely kill me anyway.

Still not trusting the wine, I spent the interval roaming around and pointing my Pixel at everything in sight. But what I should have done was switch my microphone on. Everywhere I went, men were humming refrains in their wives’ faces. “Are you converted yet?” asked one with a laugh. It turned out she was, as she hummed the next line right back at him.

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The humming continued right into the theatre. As I stood on the edge, trying to capture the sloped floor (if you ever want to know what it’s like to perform on a raked stage, may I suggest getting a seat at the back of the Wilton’s auditorium? You’ll soon learn the footwork required as you shuffle between the rows) different tunes clashed in a battle of hummers as the Gilbert and Sullivan acolytes filed back to their seats.

The emergence of the cast for act two did nothing to detract them, and the quieter moments were often punctuated by the echo of the fading notes as the hummers joined in.

And strangely, I found myself rather enjoying their contributions. With the pros on stage doing their stuff without the aid of mics, and the single pianist providing the accompaniment, it had the casual air of a boozy pub sing along. A very sophisticated sing along, for sure, but it felt... real.

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What an alarming thought.

Thankfully it didn't last long. Built to Victorian fire safety standards, it takes a while to get out of Wilton's. And as I waited to exit I had the opportunity to examine the beautifully desicated walls from close range. 

The distressed paintwork was not peeling, but Pollocked.  

It was all a charade. An illusion. A theatrical set.

It was... fake! 

And that’s something really worth praising the theatre gods for.

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Staging an intervention

“… is this an intervention?”

I thought it best to ask. I’d never had one before and I’d expected there to be more passive-aggressive daubing of the eyes with Kleenex.

The reply from Helen came quickly: “Max, you’re loved and valued…”

So it was an intervention then.

If the handkerchiefs were out, they weren’t coming through over the digital messaging system.

I took a grubby tissue out of my pocket and blew my nose before typing my reply. Just to show willing.

“The ‘me’ in my blog is just an exaggerated version of me,” I explained. “Not actual me.”

This is true.

Sort of true.

Everything I write in my blog is real. We don’t do fiction here at the London Theatre Marathon. If I started allowing myself to make things up, even small things, it wouldn’t take me long to embrace the click-bait and go full hog on a SEO-friendly spiral of lies.

There would probably also be listicles.

“How I learnt to embrace sitting in the front row”

“10 ways theatre improves your relationships”

“The cats of London theatre, ranked by snobbishness. You’ll be shocked by who’s at number 3!”

Wait, hang on. That’s a really good idea, actually…

Err, where was I? Right, lying.

I don’t do it. Everything you read has happened. I really did almost faint at the Sam Wanamaker. If I say I turned up to a show a month early, well - I am exactly as stupid as that makes me sound. Any dialogue that you encounter here is as close to an accurate transcription as what my memory can manage.

And I really do have anxiety.

Unfortunately. 

But while I may have put out more than 60,000 words since starting this blog, it might surprise you to find out that I’m fairly selective in what I chose to write about.

“Selective? Max, you spent half a blog post telling us how you turned up to one of your chemistry A-levels drunk the other day,” I hear you moan.

Yeah, and didn’t you enjoy that? Look, I could have done this marathon without ever starting this blog. A few photos and a two line review for Instagram would have served just as well. But, hey - I’m a writer. Of sorts. So that’s what I do. I write. And if I’m writing, I may as well attempt to be entertaining. Which means picking out the most interesting parts of my outings and making a pretty post out of them. Parts which very often touch on my anxiety as they are the cause of so much of my embarrassing fumbling.

And does it not work? Are you not entertained?

My name is Maximus Scaena Riseum, Runner of the London Theatre Marathon, General of the legion of theatre ghosts, loyal servant of the Theatre Gods.

Ah, yes. The theatre ghosts. What started as a silly story soon turned into a running joke and then...

“I’m not going to kill myself by jumping into an orchestra pit,” I messaged, just to be clear.

“I’m not worried about a dramatic suicide so much as wearing yourself out to a point where you are ill and miserable,” rejoined Ellen. “You know you best tho obviously,” she added, ever the diplomat.

Glad we’d got that sorted.

For the time being.

“I can’t believe I’m delivering Crosstown doughnuts while wearing a Greggs t-shirt,” I said, as I turned up at Helen’s flat that evening with Crosstown doughnuts and wearing a Greggs t-shirt.

I was at LAMDA that night, and a trip to Hammersmith is an excuse to buy doughnuts and visit Helen.

We had important matters to discuss.

Like my burgeoning writer-crush on David Ireland.

“He’s got a new play opening in Belfast,” Helen told me setting down a big mug of tea in front of me. She’d just spent the past five minutes dropping a load of intellectual chat about intertextuality and the use of language in Cyprus Avenue on me, which is the type of quality chat I’m after with my doughnuts.

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A catalogue of all my failings

When I was a little girl, my mum used to tell me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. As long as what I wanted to be was a doctor.

Which just goes to show that a mother's love is blinkered if not totally blind.

I would have made a terrible doctor. I panic in a crisis. Freeze in an emergency. And I failed physics A-level.

Yeah, I know. I was pretty shocked by that too. Mostly because I have admitted to an academic failure before even telling you that I have an MSc (have I told you that I have an MSc? Because I totally have an MSc…), but also because, if anything, I thought it would have been my chemistry grade that I ended up rejecting. I managed to turn up to one exam without a calculator, for god's sake. A blunder I topped a few days later when I turned over my second paper while being ever so slightly drunk.

So you see, no amount of positive thinking was going to get me a medical degree. Which is a relief to everyone. By shifting my attention to the arts, I have probably saved countless lives. Including my own. I would have definitely ended up stabbing myself if I ever got my hands on a scalpel.

I’m much better off wielding a red pen. No one ever died from a typo-riddled cast sheet.

Still, while I may have stumbled into a safe career, as my failed A-level would suggest, I am no good at learning lessons.

At 6pm last night, as I switched off my computer and called the lift, I decided I was going to walk to that evening’s theatre.

Fine. No problem with that. I do that pretty much every night after work.

Except the theatre I was going to was the Royal Court. And getting there on foot would involve going through Victoria. And we all know how badly that went last time around.

It started out so well.

I’d been stuck at my desk since 8.30am that morning. So being up and about, striding through the chilly evening air, was blissful.

But at 7pm I was still walking, powering down The Mall, the chilly air now freezing against my flushed cheeks.

At 7.10pm I was fighting with Google Maps.

At 7.11pm I was trying to work out if I was even going the right way

At 7.12pm Google Maps tried to convince me I was walking away from Buckingham Palace.

At 7.14pm I realised Google Maps is a fucking liar and turned around.

At 7.15pm I had barely made it to Eaton Square and I was convinced I was going to be late.

At 7.17pm I started running.

At 7.20pm I was fairly certain I was going to die of heart failure before I even got to the damn theatre.

At 7.24pm I rounded the corner into Sloane Square, fell up the stairs and through the glass doors of the Royal Court. A sweaty mess.

No time for photos. I picked up my ticket and headed straight down to the stalls.

Or at least, I tried to.

The queue was backing up the stairs. There was nowhere to go. A scrum of people poured out of the bar, clogging up the stalls foyer in their efforts to get to their seats.

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I was stuck.

I slumped against the handrail, catching my breath while I watched the chaos rage below. After a minute or so, I got out my phone and used the opportunity to take a few photos.

Eventually the way cleared and I was able to get down the stairs, across the foyer, and into the theatre. And then, bliss - sitting down in those squashy leather seats that always manage to make me feel like I am back at my grandparents’ cottage in Devon, curled up in one of their oversized armchairs with a dog and my battered copy of A Little Princess.

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There was no canine companion on hand at the Royal Court that evening, but I did have a copy of the playtext to serve as a stand-in for my childhood favourite book.

Pre-bought along with my ticket and picked up at the box office on arrival. All of £4 and you get to take home all of David Ireland’s words with you at the end of the night. Or almost all of them. I had a skim through on the way home and it looks like the whole Tom Cruise speech happened after the playtexts went to print, but… ah. Still a bloody bargain. Even without Tom Cruise.

In fact, it was bargains all round as I was there on a Monday. Ten pound Mondays at the Royal Court are the greatest gift the theatre gods have ever bestowed on us poverty-stricken theatre fans. Even if they’re not ten pounds anymore. Log in to their website on 9am on a Monday morning, and a ticket for the mighty sum of twelve pounds can be yours. If you’re quick, you can even get a prime spot in the stalls.

Sat in the centre of the second row, I was feeling pretty damn smug.

I may have been a runny mess, but I was there, at Cyprus Avenue. I’d made it.

Which is more than I can say for its 2016 run. I hadn’t managed to get myself Monday tickets back then because of… well, laziness. And forgetfulness. Week after week I told myself I was going to go, and then Monday after Monday I utterly failed to do so. Probably didn’t help that it was around the same time the Royal Court declined to hire me for a job and I was still feeling a bit raw and bitter about the whole thing… but you know, I’m totally over than now.

God, I really am telling you every little embarrassing thing about me today, aren’t I?

It’s probably just an attempt to distract myself from the lingering horror of the play.

After it was over, I hung around to get my photos, before heading out to try and get the exterior shots.

Half way through my photoshoot, a bus decided that it would be an excellent time to park outside, forcing me to hang around as he switched his signs over for the return route.

Devoid of distraction, I was suddenly forced to think of events of the past hundred minutes. Of how the jokes kept on going even after we had long since stopped laughing. Of the stains left on the carpet. And the sounds of death still echoing in my ears.

I shuddered, and pulled my coat close around me.

I felt sick.

I wanted to go home, stick on my electric blanket, have a cup of tea, snuggle under my duvet, and have a bit of a cry.

I didn’t hang around for the bus to move.

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Miss Smiles in the library with the chaise longue

It isn’t often that you find yourself in a queue of people waiting to be let inside a library. Well, not outside finals week anyway. And that tends to involve a bit more crying and ProPlus jitters than this group displaying.

“This square’s a bit posh, isn’t it?” said Helen, dropping her voice by at least an octave as we entered the library.

That’s quite the statement from someone I literally met at the Royal Opera House.

I knew what she meant though. Walking over from work, and turning from the West End into Piccadilly is quite the shock. Streets widen, ceilings heighten, and walls whiten. It’s like stepping into a period drama. You can practically hear the rattle of carriage wheels making their way around St James’ Square.

“I wish I could have seen in back in Jane Austen’s day,” she continued in a whisper.

It’s amazing how even out-of-hours the papery-silence of a library’s atmosphere gets to you.

As if on cue, the line shifted forward, bringing into view the most extraordinary day-bed. Built on a scale suitable for giants, and upholstered in a whisky coloured leather, this seemed better suited to Byron’s hangover than Mrs Bennett’s vapour attacks, but I’m never one to pass up the opportunity presented by a fainting couch.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you on it?” asked Helen.

I pretended to consider this for a full half-second before dropping my bag and sinking myself into the squashy leather surface.

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Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. I need to get me one of these.

I wonder if the library would consider loaning it out to me. I’ll bring it back, I swear!

Photoshoot complete, we headed to the makeshift box office. Now, in theory I had an e-ticket, but if this marathon has taught me anything, it’s that one must always check in at the box office. You never know what you’re going to get. Like a miniature postcard with optical-illusion artwork printed on the front, and your seat numbers scrawled on the back, for instance.

“Oh my god, look at this!” I showed Helen, much to the amusement of the box office lady. “So cute!”

“You and your tickets,” laughed Helen.

Yeah, well, look. Everyone has their vices. Mine just happens to be paper-based-theatre-keepsakes. And I don’t think anyone going to see a play in a library is in any position to pass judgement on that. And the illustrated artwork is really cute. There’s no denying it. What with the little bats fluttering around, and the silhouette of Dracula himself cupping the chins of the two figures behind him.

I shouldn’t complain. Helen has gone with me to some weird spaces for the sake of my marathon: Libraries, barges, the New Wimbledon.

She also bought me a drink.

And a programme.

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The woman is such a fucking angel. Seriously.

Drinks, programmes, and pretty tickets acquired, we followed the signs up the stairs to the room that would be serving as our theatre for the evening.

“Is this the main reading room?” she asked as we dumped our coats and bags.  “Look, you’re not allowed to bring laptops in here.”

“It’s very old fashioned,” I explained, staring at my assigned seat and wondering how I was going to clamber up onto it. It was a tall chair. I am not tall. Nor am I adept at climbing. I can’t see one of these things without wholeheartedly believing that I will fall off and die if I attempt to sit on it.

What can I say? I have issues.

It’s okay though. We’re working through this. You and me. Together.

Yeah, sorry to dump that on you. But I’m giving you some quality content over here, the least you can do is provide me with some unpaid therapy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say anything. You just sit there and look pretty while I prattle on over here.

I flicked open the programme. God-lord, look at that formatting! Two-spaces after the full-stops! I thought that convention went out with the typewriter. This place really is old fashioned.

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Which is exactly what I want from a library. And even more what I want for a production of Dracula.

The set, such as it is, was simple. A chaise longue (much more reasonably proportioned than the leather monstrosity lurking downstairs), a ladder, a couple of projection screens and, of course… the library itself. With its staircase and walkway and window.

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“That bit in the window!” I gasped when the interval rolled around.

“The window, was amazing,” agreed Helen.

I don’t think I’ll get the image of the screen being rolled up to reveal the shadowy form of Van Helsing standing there, in the dark, peering in at us through the panes of the French window, for a long time.

“And the projections are great,” continued Helen.

“The projections are great.”

“The way they are integrated into the work.”

“Absolutely.” I paused. “Doesn’t he look like Matthew Ball?” I said, referring to The Royal Ballet principal.

“Oh my god, he does look like Matthew Ball.”

“It’s the eyes.”

“And the hair.”

“I like him.”

“Me too.”

“And not just because he looks like Matthew Ball.”

Helen looked at me skeptically.

“I like her too,” I said hurriedly. “She has the most gorgeously vintage face.”

“She does have a very vintage face.”

“They’re both great.”

“They are.”

I reached down for my bag in an attempt to hide my flusters.

“I’m just going to get a photo of that calendar,” I said, slipping off the chair and scuttling over to the wooden pillar which housed a set of date cards.

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This place is so, so old-fashioned.

I love it so hard.

Unfortunately, my little crush on both of the cast members only increased during the second act on the reappearance of the window.

The screen was whipped away. The window opened.

They began to climb out onto the roof.

I gasped. They couldn’t do that! It was raining! They weren’t even wearing coats!

When they reappeared I had to sit on my hands in an effort to stop myself from running after the pair of them with a warm scarf.

The sight of her skirt covered in rain droplets made my heart ache.

I wanted to bake biscuits for the pair of them.

You know I’ve got it bad when I want to bake for people. It’s the Jewish grandmother in me.

They were really cute though.

I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate to get a case of the warm fuzzies from a production of Dracula, but what can I say… it’s the Goth in me.

It was still raining when we left the library.

Somehow it’s less romantic when it’s you being rained on.

And don’t have anyone to bake biscuits for you.

The center of attention back for the winter

Standing outside the now familiar double doors of the Arocola, I took a deep breath and steeled myself. I was back. My first return visit since starting this challenge. Last month I wrote up the theatre's Studio 1. This time I was there to tackle Studio 2.

If they let me in, that is.

Not that I had said anything bad about the place. I had actually really enjoyed the whole experience. 

Still, it managed to feel like I was somehow returning to the scene of a crime.

But it's hard to feel nervous there, standing in the pink haze of the light filtering through the glass panel that was fitted above their door.

Chances are they didn't even remember what I wrote - good or bad.

But I did. It suddenly hit me, right in the belly. Oof.

I had compared them to scrofula. In a tweet. Or rather, I had compared myself to scrofula. Whatever, scrofula had definitely been mentioned. In the same context as the Arcola. I don’t know about you, but if someone mentioned me in the same sentence as a medieval disease, I would remember. It’s not a mental image that’s easy to forget, what with all the neck pustules and all.

It was no good.

I had to go in.

Studio 2 could not be missed. The marathon demanded it.

I figured I might as well just get it over with.

I pushed through the door and headed over to the box office, with its happy yellow Tickets sign, and gave my name.

For the first time in my life, I wished my surname was slightly less memorable.

“Smile?” asked the young woman on box office duty, her voice filled with doubt.

“Smiles. With an s...” I said. “Two Esses,” I corrected myself. (This is when @weez would have inserted the longest-name-in-the-world joke if she’d been around. But as she wasn’t, I’ll allow you to work out the punchline for that one yourself).

She pulled the ticket from the box. Then paused, looking at it.

Oh dear. She recognised the name. She was going to throw me out.

She frowned.

There it was. She was thinking of neck pustules. No one wants to think of neck pustules. Not on a nice, quiet, Monday evening. Not on any kind of evening. But especially not one at the start of the week. You need a good five days to work up to pustules.

“Was that a comp?” she asked, looking up.

“Oh, yes,” I admitted. Thanks to a bit of Twitter magic, I had indeed got my hands on a comp for that evening’s performance of Stop and Search.

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She smiled. “Here you go.”

Oh.

That was the smile of someone who was definitely not thinking about neck pustules.

Which meant that she hadn’t read the tweet.

That was good.

I guess.

I felt a little deflated.

Offended almost. 

You know, I may not tweet as much as I used to, but there was a time when I was considered quite funny. A wit, if you will.

I considered telling her this.

It wasn’t all neck pustules, you know. I did puns too.

She was still holding out the ticket.

“Oh,” I said, taking it from her. A little embarrassed.

“There’s no latecomers and no re-admittance,” she pressed on, ignoring the fact that she was talking to someone who wasn’t capable of taking a piece of paper that was being offered to them. Or perhaps not, as she then went on to detail exactly where Studio 2 was, how to get there, and when I should go, in the simplest, neatest, most user-friendly language I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve said it before, but the Arcola really do walk-the-walk (and talk-the-talk) when it comes to making theatre open and accessible to all.

As the main house (Studio 1) show had closed that weekend, the building was lovely and quiet.

I found myself an empty table, settled in and tried very hard not to think about glandular swellings.

I had almost, but not entirely forgotten about the incident (let’s be real here, I’ll be mumbling about the scrofula-tweet to my nurses as I lay on my deathbed) when it was announced that the doors were open. It was time to head downstairs.

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With the stone walls and tunnel-like corridors, I could almost think myself back in Unit 9 at The Vaults, but as we turned into the theatre it was not a shed that appeared out of the gloom, but a cosy space with proper seating on three sides and the heating thwacked on high. And seat numbers. No unreserved seating nonsense going on here.

If I have one criticism of the Studio 2 it is this: legroom. Or rather, the lack of it. Or even more rather, trying-to-squeeze-between-the-rows-to-get-to-your-seat room. Three seats in an I ended up with two banged knees and a rather satisfying bruise this morning.

Now, I admit, I’m a klutz. There’s no use being coy about it when I spend my days in the near vicinity of some of the most graceful people on the planet. But still, I’m beginning to think that the Arcola is out to get me.

My neighbour for the evening, having examined the narrowness of the rows, was having none of it.

Setting down bag and coat and umbrella, she proceeded to climb her way in.

We all watched with admiration and a touch of envy as she skipped happily over row A, before retrieving her bag and coat and umbrella, and plonking herself down next to me.

I almost applauded.

“Rather you than me,” came a voice from down the row.

Absolutely. Fairly certain I would have died if I attempted to do the same thing. And you know what, the Arcola really don’t deserve that.

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Not after all the quality theatre they’ve been throwing at me this marathon.

That’s a lot of words to be chucking around in such a confined space. A lot of words. Good words, for sure. But so friggin’ many of them.

I came out feeling spent. Every word in the world had been utterly used up.

I had to stand in the pink light of the foyer for a moment, quietly recharging, until the memory of neck pustules chased me home.

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Tripping the Ecto Fantastic

“Come close,” said a red jacketed usher, looming above us as she stood in the doorway of the van that will serve as our theatre. “I have a little speech to give.”

After my emotional trip to the Studio at the Vault Festival earlier that afternoon I was back, this time in one of their vehicle venues - parked at the end of Leake Street.

I was a little annoyed when I saw how close it was.

After trying and failing to get an answer out of the Vault Festival twitter feed as to how much time I should allow to get myself from a show in the Studio to a show in a vehicle venue, I could now see that time was zero seconds.

The check in point is literally just outside the main doors.

Thanks @VAULTfestival. You’re doing great work there not allowing yourself to get distracted from all that praise retweeting by indulging in a touch of customer service. Really super. Well done.

We do as the usher says, gathering close together - just as much to protect our shivering figures again the cold as to hear about our fate.

There weren’t many of us. Three sets of couples, and me.

“Once you come in,” red jacket continues now that we were suitably huddled. “You’ll be given a short opportunity to leave. But once the lights are off, that’s it. You’re stuck.”

A woman standing near me giggled nervously and her companion for the evening smirks. I’d already clocked the pair of them as out on a first date. She’s into tarot cards and healing. He’s trying to pretend that he doesn’t find that incredibly off-putting.

“If you really don’t like it,” says red jacket, “take your headphones off, and it will draw to a close naturally.”

Suitabley terrified, we were ushered into the back of the van.

A long table covered in a white tablecloth greeted us. Hanging above were dim lights, and bells, both hanging low. And either side - two rows of comfy chairs. With headphones.

“If you’re sitting on the right, take the headphones from over your right shoulder. If on the left, your left shoulder,” ordered the red jacket from the door.

After a little confusion about getting my left sorted from my right, I managed to pick the right (that is… left) headphones.

Further left and right disentanglement followed, matching up the big painted L and R on the phones themselves to my corresponding L and R ears.

“Can you hear me?” came the faint voice of the usher once we’d all managed this challenging feat.

We nodded.

She clapped. “Can you hear that?”

We nodded again. We could. Just about.

“Alright.”

And with that she left, shut the door, and plunged us into darkness.

From the other side of the van I heard a door open, and someone coming in. Footsteps clomped around behind me. I had the remind myself there was nothing behind me other than the solid wall of the van.

An unseen voice instructed us to place our hands on the table. I did as I was told, setting my palms flat against the rough cloth. We were taking part in a séance, calling on the departed souls of our loved ones. We must not remove our hands from the table. That was very important. Or the spirits might break free.

I wasn’t overly fussed about that.

Or calling about the spirits of my loved ones, to be honest.

Any spirit would do me.

I’ve been hankering after meeting a theatre ghost for years. And if this was my time to finally get my ghoul on, there, inside a dark van parked on the end of Leake Street… well I wasn’t about to complain if the ectoplasm dripping on my shoulder belonged to a stranger.

I blinked in the darkness. It didn’t seem to make any difference.

I experimented. Closing my eyes, and then opening them again.

A few feet away, I spotted the glimmer of a light.

Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.

A second later it disappeared.

The blackness took over.

The voices in my ear grew more frantic. Something was going wrong.

I clamped my hands down hard on the table. It was a touch too far away. My arms ached from being stretched out so long.

I wriggled forward, until my knees crashed against the solid block that was the table. It was really uncomfortable sitting like that. My muscles ached. I needed to move my arms, shake them out, but I didn’t dare.

My heart was hammering.

It was so cold. I hadn't taken my coat or shall off, but the freezing air had seeped under my skin.

I wanted to take my headphones off. I wanted to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders. But I couldn’t lift my fingers from the table.

My hands began to tremble.

Was it the cold, or terror? I knew it was all rubbish. No one was there. It was just a recording.

If only it weren’t so dark…

The trembling became a shudder. It wasn’t my hands. It was the table. It was rising up, taking my hands with it.

I bit the inside of my mouth, telling myself over and over that it was okay. 

Noises clanged around us. It was so loud. My fingers twitched as they begged to cover my ears.  

Louder and louder until I couldn't take a second longer... 

The table shook violently as it sank back down to the floor.

The awful clanging stopped.

Something was moving around the room again.

Something… not human.  

And then… and then the lights flickered back on. A faint glow, inching itself brighter until we were left blinking at each other across the table.

The pair on the first date had their hands stowed in their laps. They grinned at each other sheepishly. Those two will go far.

The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.

The door crashed open. “Everyone out!” ordered red jacket.

We scuttled out of the van, our heads bowed. No one wanted to meet each other’s eyes, lest we reveal how scared we were.

Safely back in Waterloo and juddering off home on the tube, I checked my phone.

I’d tried to take a photo of the inside of the van, but my photo roll was completely empty. It jumped straight from the graffiti of Leake Street to the shadowy outside of the van. There was nothing to show for my time inside.

Now, either that’s just my crappy phone or...

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My big fat brain

It has suddenly occurred to me, sitting here, on my bed, at home, that I have no idea how to write this blog post.

Usually I have something to start off with. A funny thing that happened, an embarrassing moment that I figure I might as well tell you, or an annoyance that can fill a few hundred words. And the fact is, that yes - I have all of those. But it feels inappropriate to go down that route. Because this show is the first one that I actually booked for me, and not for the marathon. I went to see it because I thought it was important for me to do so. Not to fill some self-imposed quota. And not to check off a venue. This was the show that I organised all my Vault Festival bookings around. Because I thought it was the one I had to go to, above all the others.

So, while I could spend a blog post detailing everything that irritates me about the Vaults, I’m not going to do that. Not with this one.

That’s a big statement from something who is just sat here floundering about with words.

So, let’s try and impose some order on this colloquy chaos shall we?

Why did I go? Why this show?

Okay, great start. Good, strong start.

I went to see Fatty Fat Fat because I used to be a Fatty Fat Fat.

And no this isn’t going to be a preachy blog post about how I lost the weight or any such bollocks, because fuck that shit. I lost weight through a combination of anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Which put me in the strange position of gaining thin privilege and yet not having done anything to deserve it. Result: I have a fuck tonne of unresolved issues on the matter.

I was fat. And now I’m not. And it’s weird. And it’s impossible to talk about properly.

I spent so much of my life as a fat person that I can’t ever imagine myself as anything else. No matter what I look like in the mirror, I will forever think fat. I have a fat mentality. A fat brain. Fat emotions. A fat soul, even.

And yes, I say fat because I was fat. Not chubby. Not fluffy. Not over-whatever-weight. I was fat. Properly fat. Very fat.

How fat was I? I believe it's considered harmful, by those people who understand these things, to post actual numbers, but I also know how annoying it is to not know - so let's say: a fashion designer would have called me plus size, to a teenage boy I’d have been an ugly fat cow, and a doctor would have termed me class three morbidly obese.

Whatever, I was fat.

And I never saw myself on stage.

No, wait. That’s not true.

I can remember seeing one significant fat character on stage. A girl. Who flirted with a boy. And he flirted back. And it was adorable. They were adorable. And I was so frickin’ happy.

That was, until the playwright turned her into the joke.

And it killed me.

No prizes for guessing it was a Martin McDonagh.

God, I hate him. And love him. And hate him more.

This blog post is not about Martin McDonagh.

Other than to explain why I wanted to see a play written by a fat woman, and one who claimed that fatness. A play where if there was a joke, that the fat people would be in on it.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a one-woman show. Sorry Katie Greenall, I was asking a lot of you as I headed into the Studio at the Vaults and took my seat.

But that’s the thing with underrepresented classes. When a show does come around, it has to cater to every single need and taste, because there’s nothing else out there offering it as a choice on the menu.

So, I can forgive Katie for making the audience clap along to the Cha-Cha Slide. You already know that I can’t clap in time with music, so I sat that one out.

I can also kind of forgive her picking someone to come onstage through the medium of hiding a crisp packet under their seat, but only because I’ve told myself that was a set-up, and both the crisp packet and the audience member were planted - because the alternative is too abhorrent to contemplate.  

And I can forgive her making us play Never Have I Ever, a game I hate because I find the grammar confusing, because she gave us all crisps to eat along with her and I ended up eating a lot of crisps.

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What I can’t forgive is the raw words that she threw down once all the silly games had ended. With truth flying all over that small space there was nowhere to hide.

Story followed story, dripped out - sometimes as simple throw-away tales, others more poetic in structure - and each one burning out a hole in me as they found a similar tale in my own memories, burrowing in deep to pull them out.

It was brave. It was painful. And I really, really, needed it.

I needed to hear those stories. Perhaps as much as Katie seemed to need to tell them.

And perhaps as much as I need to tell a few of my own.

Like the time that the piano teacher in my childhood ballet lessons pulled me aside to ask if I ate crisps (what is it with crisps?).

Or the time when I was playing Charlie’s mother in my school’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory my English teacher stopped the rehearsal to change Charlie’s line from “my mother looks so pale and thin” to “pale and tired” in front of my whole class.

Or the time I was given a digital scale as a birthday present.

Or the time my mother offered to pay for weight loss surgery.

Or the time I had to explain to my landlord exactly how I had managed to break my bed.

Or the time when my nephew asked me why I was so big. Well, not exactly that time. I would have forgotten it entirely if I hadn’t mentioned it to my sister-in-law - laughing as I shared the joke. “He means impressive,” she quickly explained. Too quickly. That was not what he had meant at all, but her desperation to cover his gaff hurt more than his words ever could.

Or the times, so many times, that my old flatmate, Leanne, the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life, used me as a human shield when we went out dancing together, to protect her from the predatory eyes of boys who could see only her.

Wow. Too many times. Too much hurt.

But here’s the thing they don’t tell you about being fat: it gives you superpowers.

The fat brain is very perceptive. It can see the world differently to those who have never carried the weight.

Because it knows the world’s dark secret.

It knows that every time someone stops their car to let me cross the road, that five minutes later they'll be speeding up to make a fat person run.

It knows that when a waiter gives an admiring smile in response to my request for a massive slice of cake, that they’ll be fighting back a wave of disgust at the next fat person who does the same thing.

And I have to live with that.

And let me tell you, it makes it super hard to trust new people.

Every comment about a fat person, every joke I hear, will be analysed and turned over a thousand times.

Would they have liked me if they knew me when I was fat? Would they have even seen me?

Would you? No seriously. I’m asking. Would you be reading this blog if I was still fat? I know I certainly wouldn’t have written it.

I had the idea for this marathon five years ago. And this is the year I chose the go through with it. The year I wasn’t fat anymore.

It hadn’t occurred to me before this moment, this exact moment, that these two things might be connected.

But of course they are.

I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.

The world has grown the smaller I got.

And just thank god that all of my closest friends now knew me when I was fat. Knew what I looked like and still treated me as a human being, and a friend, and not something other.

Because fat people are other. They are set-apart. Their stories untold and unheard.

And that is why I went to see Fatty Fat Fat, and you should too.

Right, that’s enough of that. I’m going to quickly post this before I wimp out.

Oh My Gardée

"Wanna risk it?"

Not my usual sales-pitch when inviting a friend to come and see a show with me, but I was putting a lot of faith in the theatre gods to deliver on this one. At first glance, it was an enticing prospect: a crowd-pleasing ballet (Fille mal gardée), an easy to get to theatre (New Wimbledon), and the prospect of cake with a local (Ellen), but once the local quickly made it known that she would in no way consider attending, it soon became clear that we were into Tom Cruise levels of risky business here. 

The ballet may have been Fille, but it was the Gorsky not the Ashton version, and it was being performed by one of those Russian-touring companies that have such a grandiose name you figure they must be fairly fancy, until you realise that fancy-companies don't tend to spend quite so much time on the regional-theatre circuit. And then there was the matter of the theatre. Or rather, its seat map. 

Less than a week before the performance and the New Wimbledon's seating plan had more brightly-coloured dots than a Cath Kidson outlet sale. With each dot corresponding to an unsold seat, there was a good chance that this was a house that was going to need some serious box office-manoeuvres to make it look presentable come curtain-up. And I was willing to place a bet on it.

I told Helen my plan. We'd buy the cheapest possible seats, up in the upper circle. With so few seats sold up there, chances are they wouldn't want to have to staff it on the night, the upper circle would be closed, and we'd be upgraded.

"Yeah let's gamble!" came the immediate reply.

Right then.

The game was on.

I scoured the seating plan and picked our seats - right on the end of the row, restricted view. Terrible, awful seats. 

This better not go wrong, was all I could think as I keyed in my card details. Or Helen was going to kill me. 

Over matcha crepes at Cafe Mori, Ellen wished us luck for our "Grim Fille."

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"Message me in the interval," she ordered, with an evil glint in her eye, a little too pleased to not be going with us.

She must have already seen the posters.

"What even is that?" I asked Helen as we neared the theatre.

It was a ballerina. En pointe. Wearing a familiar looking white tutu.

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"Swan Lake," we both said at the same time.

"Are they even performing Swan Lake?"

I scanned the poster. No. They weren't.

What they were doing apparently, was sticking a pink background on a random ballet image and hoping that no one would notice. 

This was not a good sign. It wasn't even a good poster.

Oh well, there was no backing out now.

We forged on to the box office.

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"The upper circle is closed," said the woman behind the counter as she inspected them. "Let me get your new seat numbers."

I gave Helen my best smug face.

"Right," said the box office lady as she scrawled our new seats on the tickets. "You're in the dress circle."

We were in the fucking dress circle!

Pink Swan Lake posters or no, things were looking up.

Now, let's just freeze-frame for a moment on that smug face of mine. There's something I need to explain so that you'll understand the significance of everything that follows, something very important. And that is: I love Fille. 

I really love Fille.

I cannot emphasis that enough.

If you take anything away from this post it should be this: I love Fille.

I love the music. The costumes. The dancing. The characters. The pony.

And I love the love.

Not just the young love of Colas and Lise, but the love between Lise and her mum, the Widow Simone. And the love between Farmer Thomas and his son Alain (oh, when Thomas strokes Alain's hair, soothing the poor lad after he fails to get the girl... my heart), the burgeoning, and slightly knowing relationship between Simone and Thomas. And of course, the love of Alain for his umbrella.

No one leaves the stage without a happy ending. That is Ashton's gift to the audience. He ties a shiny pink bow on everyone's story and sends them out holding hands and singing into the night.

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When the opening notes of Gorsky's Fille sounded up from the pit, both Helen and I jolted in our seats. We turned to each other with panicked looks. These were not the gentle tones of the Ashton, conjuring up a slow sunrise over rolling hills, yawning milkmaids picking hay out of their hair while the stableboy tries to find his britches. 

"That sounds sinister," I hissed at Helen under my breath.

She nodded back.

The world this music was conjuring was one where the forces of Big Dairy meant that the milkmaids were all out of a job, while the stableboys had been requisitioned to help the army tend the fires after the latest Foot and Mouth outbreak.

If the music of the overture was wrong, the oeufs were even wronger. Lise fetching eggs from the hen house? No! She should be working the butterchurn. How else was the choreographer going to fit in a knob joke into the first act?

It was then that I finally began to understand why Ashton's Fille is considered so quintessentially English. The Russians weren't going to have any knob jokes in their version. Not a single one.

Worse still, the role of Widow Simone is danced by an actual woman and not a man in a padded dress.

I spent the entire ballet giggling and gasping in fascinated horror. Like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting, I could spot the recognisable bits, but it was jumbled up - all in the wrong order, to the wrong music, and being done by the wrong characters.

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"Alain catching the butterfly," we gasped as we jogged through the snow on our way to the station. "That was Lise pretending to catch the fly!"

"And Lise stubbing her toe when she kicks the door-"

"That's her mum hurting her foot on the butter churn!"

"And the hobby horse being thrown around was the flute!"

"Which makes so much more sense!"

"Yeah, where did the hobby horse even come from?"

"At least a flute at a harvest festival has a reason to be there."

"Yes!"

"And the circles in the rain, became the maypole!"

"Oh my god, yes!"

"Ashton was like - if they want circles, I'll show them circles!"

"And he gave us a real pony!"

"For which we are eternally grateful."

"Ashton was a genius.

"Ashton was a genius."

"What vision - to turn that mess into..."

"Our Fille."

"Exactly."

"He was a genius."

"He was a genius."

"He was a dramaturge."

"Yes!"

"He made an actual story. With characters. I've never realised how deep they all were until..."

"That."

"Yes."

"That whole thing with Colas getting the Village Notary drunk and stealing his clothes..."

"So wrong."

"Because it means that we know he's seeing Lise's fantasy about having kids with him."

"Yes! Ashton hides him from her and from us."

"So when he reveals himself-"

"-we feel her embarrassment too!"

"It's a double-hitter - the joke, then the blushes. Here it's all joke."

"And oh my god, the When We Are Married mime!"

"The mime!"

"It was all there-"

"-but all wrong!"

"The timing..."

"The storytelling..."

"All wrong."

"All wrong."

"Ashton was such a genius."

"Such a fucking genius."

At some point during all this we had managed to board a train.

"I wish I could have met him," I said, as I plonked myself down in a seat. 

Helen looked shocked. I never want to meet anyone.

"I just want to hear him talk about... his process. How he took that and turned it into..." I touched my lashes. "I feel a bit emotional about him."

"Oh my god, you really do," said Helen, laughing at my tearing eyes.

I really was. I sniffed and tried to hold it together.

"This changes everything. I will never be able to watch Ashton in the same way again."

"People bang on about MacMillan being the great storyteller, but Ashton..."

"Fuck. Yes. Fucking. Ashton!"

"When MacMillan did Romeo and Juliet... the story was there!"

"Yeah, Ashton had to strip it all back and start again!"

"He took tiny moments and created a complete world!"

"He totally changed the relationship between Lise and her mother. Like... making them spin wool together, it's funny, but also, that's how you know they love each other. Her mum tapping the beat on the tambourine-"

"-the one from the first act."

"Yes, exactly. Thank you. He took the pointless act one tambourine-"

"-that added nothing to the storyline."

"Less than nothing. He took it, and transformed it, and built it up. This is something they've done a thousand times before. Mum making music for her daughter to dance around to."

"So she's not just marrying off her daughter for money. She wants her to be happy. She wants a secure marriage. Not to the lad who has probably been chasing her chickens round the yard since he was a toddler."

"Exactly. So when she finally comes round and approves the match-"

"It actually means something."

"Ashton was such a fucking genius."

"He was fucking ballsy. He was like - those Italian fouettes? My Lise doesn't need them."

"Their dancing is all about the characters."

"It's not about the virtuosity."

"It's about the story."

"Yes."

"Wait, is this you?" I said, looking up to see what station we were in.

"Shit yes."

Helen jumped off the train. A second later, she stuck her head back through the door. "Aren't you supposed to be changing here too?"

The doors closed. The train moved on.

I was supposed to have been changing there.

Shit.

Still... fucking Ashton. 

I can't get over it.

The incorporeal manner of cats

The Omnibus Theatre must have the most middle-class "how to get here" instructions in London. 

"You should see a Little Waitrose the opposite side of the road," it lightly trilled - or at least, that’s how it sounded in my head, in the tones of a boarding school housemistress whose fiancee had left her for a nightclub dancer.

I did see a Little Waitrose on the opposite side of the road.

We were off to a good start.

“Follow The Pavement,” it continued. I followed The Pavement. And all the rest of the instructions, until I found the theatre, on the corner of Clapham Common Northside and the very literary sounding Orlando Road, “opposite the Starbucks,” exactly as advised.

This air of quiet gentility continued through the door, as I saw signs for the Common Room which gave off less of an air of Man on the Clapham Omnibus, and more the Girls of Malory Towers. I half expected to see Darrell and Felicity toasting crumpets over the fire.

Oh, god. I could do with a crumpet right about now… Nope. I don’t. What I could do with is stopping thinking about food all the time.

Words. Writing. Theatre. That’s what I should be concentrating on.

Anyway, where was I? Yes. Clapham. The Omnibus. Fine.

I gave my name at the box office, and was handed a laminated token in exchange.

“Seating is unreserved. The house is open now. But there's still time to get a drink.”

A very relaxed statement given the usual rush to get seats when doors open.

This atmosphere extended into the Common Room, where people lazed about on squashy sofas and chatted quietly. No one looked like they were in any particular rush to head into the theatre.

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“I do like an arched door,” commented one woman, taking a photo of said arched door. She turned to her companion. “Shall we get a drink?”

Flummoxed by all this tranquility, I too hung back, taking my own pictures of the space. There’s plenty there to photograph. Bookcases, artworks on the wall, big sprawling wooden tables, a bar heavily laden with knick-knacks.

But you and I both know that such serenity couldn’t last. Not in my little anxious soul.

As the clock above the bar sloughed away the seconds, I began to grow restless and I found myself heading over to those arched doors. There was no holding back. I was going in.

After all the arched doors and squashy sofas and bookcases, I’d expected something a little bit different than the regimented rows of neat blue seats that I found inside the theatre.

With the light pouring in from the rear, highlighting the backs of everyone’s heads, it was almost like being inside a cinema. A feeling not helped by the actors already in situ on stage, sat in formation, staring out at us. Watching. Dressed in vintage blacks, they looked a still from a silent movie come to life.

I may have been in all-black too, but mine wasn’t vintage. My own efforts had a distinct lack of black satin flowers. There was no black lace capes draped over a matching black lace gown. No black beaded trim, black ribboned shoes or… Ooo… what was that? Shiny black jacquard? Yes, please! The costume-envy was going to be strong on this one. I could already tell.

Hoping the cast didn’t misconstrue the lust in my eyes, I quickly shuffled into an aisle seat about half-way back for some quality outfit-perving.

But someone was coming down the aisle, blocking my view. Someone familiar looking.

Michael Billington, theatre reviewing royalty. Nay, the king himself. Whatever grain of salt you use on his reviews, he deserves respect. The man’s been a drama critic for The Guardian since before I was born.

Golly.

It wasn’t press night was it?

I checked.

No. It was the last preview.

Cheeky.

Still, I was intrigued to see where the great master would sit. I creeped on him under the guise of reading the freesheet. 

The row behind me. On the aisle.

I congratulated myself on my seat choice. Mid-way back and on the aisle - the critics' choice.

But in all my pretend reading of the freesheet I had managed to not read something.

I went back to it, unsure if I had not read it because I was not actually reading, or not read it because it was not there.

I scanned the narrow pages.

Nope. It wasn’t there. No running time.

Had the woman on box office mentioned a running time? I couldn’t remember. I had been thinking about crumpets.

Was there even an interval?

Considering the play I was watching was primarily set in intervals, this could all become quite meta very fast.

I was there for The Orchestra, where the frenzied back-biting between the musicians takes place in the interludes in their playing.

Or rather, not playing. The music was piped in as the actors bowed, plucked, and pounded at their instruments - not making a sound for themselves.

When a cello was replaced by knitting needles, I craned forward, trying to see if that was being faked too.

“Japan stitch is vulgar,” sneered one of the characters, also leaning in to have a look.

Japan stitch?

I’d never heard of it, but then, I haven’t knitted much since I was a teenager.

I turned to the expert, my fiend Ellen. She knits for the stars of The Royal Ballet. She’d know.

“Ellen - is the Japan stitch vulgar?” I messaged her as the lights rose.

“I’ve never heard of it! It’s a knitting term?” she messaged back a minute later.

Hmm.

Helen was equally dubious. “I reckon Japan stitch is completely made up,” she interjected. “1. Japan doesn’t knit traditionally. 2. If it was a stitch it would be all metaphysical and ineffable and inscrutable and zen and that.”

Well, quite.

But all this lead to another question. Had the play finished? I mean, I knew it had, because we’d clapped and shit. But the other things that happen when plays come to a close had, well, not.

For example, leaving. People weren’t doing that.

The laid back atmosphere of the Common Room had invaded the theatre. No one wanted to budge.

Taking some initiative, I put on my coat and scarf, and as no one made an attempt to stop me, I left.

“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind me as I paused to look at one of the pieces of art on the wall.

Oh, shit. Maybe there really was more.

I turned round.

“Would you like me to explain the artwork?” said the small woman standing behind me.

I did. It looked strange and wonderful. A series of white cloth dolls, perfectly poised on rows of string - like a display of voodoo dolls, available to purchase for the curse-rich but time-poor witch.

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“They belong to an art project called Dreams and a Heart. I ask members of the community to fill the doll with dreams,” she said, touching a cloud of cotton wool on the table. “Then we insert a heart and meditate over it before adding it to the display.

“Would you like to make one?” she asked gently.

I did rather fancy sewing a doll, but I fancied going home even more. So I passed.

I'd hate the give the poor things my dreams anyway. It must be hard enough being strung up there without my unconscious thoughts fucking it up.

I made to hurry out, but as I was leaving I spotted something.

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What the…

There are cats? Two of them? At the Omnibus? And I missed them?

I am outraged, appalled, and frankly hurt that the cats hadn’t made themselves known to me.

This is worse than the ghost hunt of theatre 3/251. Ghosts at least have the decency to exist in an incorporeal manner that might easily escape detection. Cats, on the other hand, have too much fluff to occupy liminal spaces.

I dithered in the doorway. I could go back, I told myself. I might see a cat. I might even see two cats. I might… here my brain took on a zealous tone: I might partake in the making of art!

I cringed.

Ergh. Too much, brain. Way too much.

Stick to thinking up blog post titles from now on, will you?

Messing around on boats

Brr, it’s cold.

No like, properly freezing.

And entirely the wrong day to be heading down to the canal and hang out on a barge.

“It’s been snowing,” said Helen, bundled up in padded coat as we met by the waterside. Her huge fur-trimmed hood nodded in the direction of the ice that clung to the base of the wall next to us.

So, yes, it was really effin’ cold.

We looked from the ice, to the brightly-coloured barge, and back again.

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“Do they have heating?” asked Helen.

“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “But the website said to wear layers.”

I wasn’t wearing layers.

After my attack of the vapours on Friday’s trip to the Wanamaker, I was a little nervous about putting my heattech back on. It was just me, my dress, and my coat, against the elements.

And we were shivering.

“Let’s go inside.”

We made out way up the short gangway and onto the deck.

It was beautiful there. Moored right in the middle of Little Venice, the water was surrounded by massive stucco-fronted buildings on all sides.

The water churned as boats thrummed their way past.

The air had that sharp whiteness that comes when you’re near a really cold expanse of water.

Gorgeous.

But my knees were starting to freeze solid.

As I opened the door, a waft of warm air spilled out. Good. They had heating.

And tea.

I could see people swarming around with cups at the bottom of the steep staircase that led down into the body of the Puppet Theatre Barge.

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Tea has always struck me as a strange substance to consume at the theatre. I was really weirded out by the ubiquitous presence of it at the Orange Tree, but here, on this boat, surrounded by so much frigid water, it seemed right. Proper even. Necessary.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” offered Helen as we queued for tickets at the counter that also served as the bar. I wasn't the only one feeling the need for hot drinks.

I thought about it. I did want tea. But there was something else on the menu that sounded even more appealing. “You know what, I’d really like a hot chocolate.”

“Can we take our drinks in?” Helen asked one of the black-clad ushers.

We could.

Hot chocolates, ticket (just the one needed), and programme (£1) acquired, we were led by another black-clad usher into the theatre itself.

Rows and rows of steeply raked benches, facing the tiniest stage I had ever seen.

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While seats aren’t assigned, rows are, and we were directed to the correct one and instructed to shift ourselves to the end, where we wriggled ourselves out of our coats and then set ourselves upon our hot chocolates, letting the warmth seep into our bones and drive it the brittle cold.

What remained, was soon melted by the play.

A collective sigh of appreciation rose up from the barged audience as the first puppet appeared, and never really went away. It hovered amongst us, reveling in the charm that poured out from that tiny stage, inhabited by the clinking wooden puppets.

The Butterfly’s Spell, by Federico Garcia Lorca. Yes, the guy who wrote Yerma also wrote a play about a beetle falling in love with an injured butterfly.

“He sure had range,” I observed during the interval.

But perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Who else could have prevented such a sweet tale from devolving into schmaltz?

The woman working the box office came over. “Can I take your cups from you?” she asked. “We’ve run out at the front.”

The rush for more tea and biscuits must have been considerable.

No wonder. By that point the effects of my hot chocolate were wearing off and I dug out my scarf to put around my shoulders.

As the audience filled back in for the second act, I noticed something.

I looked around just to check.

Yup.

We were all grown-ups.

Not a single child to be seen.

I would have thought a 3pm performance on a Sunday would have been the ideal time to take a child to see a puppet-show on a barge. But perhaps only the childless can be convinced to throw off their duvet on such a wintery day in order to spend their afternoon on a boat.

Their loss.

At the end, the puppeteers came out for their bows.

I recognised them.

They were the same black-clad figures who had led us all to our seats.

“I fucking loved that,” I said, as our applause died down. “So fucking charming.”

Helen agreed.

We started plotting the casting for a ballet version. 

The entire experience was magical. I’m definitely going back. I need more magic in my life.

I just need to remember my heattech.

But there was no time to dwell on the experience. I had somewhere else to be. It was a two-show day, and I was heading off to Waterloo for my first trip to the Vault Festival… and the dreaded Unit 9.