Offenbach Off

Well, this is rather worrying. Google Maps can’t seem to locate my next venue.

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

From Blackheath station I turn right and start marching up the hill. I’ve never been to Blackheath before. It’s kinda cute, in that way that south London villages so often are. As if they’re always on the alert for any roaming film crews scouting for a period location. With ever street filled with shops that seem to exist solely to furnish old ladies’ front rooms with knick-knacks.

There’s a great big red brick building over there on the left which looks likely. And yup, I can see the signage now. Blackheath Halls.

Turns out it does exist. Which is a relief. I was beginning to think I might have made the place up. It does rather sound like the sort of name my brain would come up with. It’s the Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way of theatre names. I bet Charlotte Brontë only used Thornfield Hall because Blackheath was just a little too on the nose to be taken seriously.

Music pours out. Singing. The cast must be warming up. Although there is a touch of the football chant to their repertoire. I’m beginning to wonder what on earth I’ve let myself in for tonight.

I’m seeing La Belle Helene. Which I admit I know exactly nothing about.

Maybe it really does have a scene set at Old Trafford.

Lots of people are perching on the steps outside the bright red doors. Unfortunately, none of them are Mr Rochester. So I go inside.

There’s a nice foyer in here. Big and square, with the box office down on one end.

I join the queue. There are signs all over the place advertising the twin joys of programmes and ice cream. Both of them three quid. But when I get to the front, there are no programmes on sale at the desk.

There is a notice proudly promising that the show is sold out though. I wonder how much walk up business they get all the way down here…

Not sure what to do now. There’s a bar off to one side. It’s pretty big but it is absolutely rammed. I decide not to join the fray. I hang back, examining the boards full of children’s artwork.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_183440.jpg

There’s a front of houser in the foyer, carrying a stack of paper in her arms.

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

“Sorry, is that the freesheet?” I ask her.

“It’s a synopsis for you,” she says, handing a copy to me.

“Amazing, thank you.”

I wander off to have a look at my prize. It’s exactly what she said. A synopsis of the opera and nothing more. A two page synopsis of the opera. The font is pretty big, but even so. Two pages. That’s worrying.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_183607.jpg

I decide not to read it. I’m a great believer in productions having to stand up by themselves without explanation.

Still… two frickin’ pages.

I’ve exhausted all the possibilities that the foyer has to offer. I should probably go and see what is happening in the bar.

I squeeze myself in, immediately getting bumped. First one way. Then the other. It’s impossible to move in here.

The doors to the auditorium are open and I consider going in, if only for the peace, but it’s far too early for that.

Instead I brace myself against a pillar and send a prayer to the theatre gods for their protection.

From my position, I have a good view of the door. “Great Hall. Door B,” it says. I check my ticket. There’s no mention of doors. I look back at the sign. No seat numbers. Right. It seems we’re just guessing our doors tonight then.

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

It looks nice enough, but there are no programmes on display.

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

Just as I start getting rather stressed about the whole thing, a front of houser appears bearing a huge wodge of them which she passes off to the ticket checker at Door B.

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

I walk over, but someone else gets in there first.

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

“Three pounds,” the ticket checker tells the man. I grab my purse and pull out the correct change while I’m waiting. I knew all those pound coins from the National would come in handy.

“Can I get one too?” I ask when the man ahead of me has gone inside.

“Of course!” she says. “Three pounds please.”

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

“Good evening and welcome to this evening’s performance of La Belle Helene,” comes a voice over the sound system. “The house is now open. Please take your seats as soon as possible.”

I check my phone. It’s 6.40pm. Fucking hell, calm down mate. We’ve got ages.

No one else in the bar seems to have noticed the time though, as soon there is a massive queue outside both doors and I have a nice procession of handbags to knock me as they pass by.

An old man decides to sit things out and pulls a chair away from one of the tables, ramming it into my knees as he sits down. He wriggles around, using his elbows to pummel me back into the pillar. What a twatting fucker.

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

I look up. It’s Ruth! I know Ruth. Do you know Ruth? She made a tiny uncredited cameo in my London Coliseum blog post. And here she is again!

“Have you been to any of the Blackheath Opera productions before?” she asks.

I have to admit that I haven’t. Between you are me, I don’t get on the train for opera. I don’t tell Ruth that. She is definitely the type of person to get on the train for opera.

“The soloists are professionals,” she explains. “The minor roles are Trinity students, and they have a massive community chorus.”

Well, that sounds good. I’ve seen the Trinity Laban students before, at Queen’s House, and that was… everything.

“They’ve just refurbished this place. Usually the productions are in the round, but they want to show off their fancy new raked seating on this one.”

“They even have it printed on the ticket!” I say, showing her mine.

“Raked Seating,” it says, just before the seat number.

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

I try Door B first. “Am I at the right door?” I ask. Turns out I’m not.

Take two then.

The lady at Door A checks my ticket and waves me through into a very dark corridor. Round the corner, down past the fancy new raked seating and there we are: the Grand Hall.

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

“Yup, through here,” she says pointing to the nearest aisle. “And right to the back.”

She’s right. I am right at the back. The row behind is empty, being used by the tech desk. This is as far away as you can get at Blackheath Halls.

“It’s going to get really hot up here,” says someone in my row.

“Didn’t there used to be fans?” comes the reply.

“They were taken out in the restoration. They were supposed to be replaced by what they call, not air conditioning, but an air cooling system.”

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

It really doesn’t. I get out my fan and try to move some of this thick air around, but it isn’t doing much good.

“I can feel a bit of air coming from somewhere!” says the first person.

Yeah. That’s me, love. You’re welcome.

One of the musicians in the orchestra waves at someone in the audience. Hugs and kisses and greetings are exchanged as the seats fill up. It’s going to be one of those nights. Where everyone knows everyone, and the rest are related to people in the cast. No wonder the run is sold out.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_185423.jpg

Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

We seem to be doing the story of Helen of Troy. But it’s a comedy. And a rather tedious comedy at that.

All around me the audience is laughing. The kind of performative laughter you get at Shakespeare plays. The “I get this, I’m clever,” type of laughter. Well, I don’t get this. I’m not clever.

Ruth was right. There is a massive community cast. Every time I think the stage is full, more people keep on coming out. There’s a whole classroom’s worth of uniformed kids up on stage now.

And the heat is astonishing. At first it was merely unbearable. It is now a hell inferno. I can feel the weight of it pressing down on my chest. I rub my collarbones, hoping to free them up. My skin is clammy and hot to the touch.

First act one hour thirty. Second act thirty minutes. I can do this. It’s fine. Just listen to the music.

But the music is terrible. The storyline ridiculous. The characters irritating.

I find myself rolling my eyes every time someone makes a joke. And there are a lot of them.

I can’t believe it’s only a few weeks since I saw that glorious, well-thought out programme at Queen’s House. And now I’m here. Watching this right pile of tut.

My eyes are beginning to hurt I’m rolling them so hard. I think I might have dislocated a retina.

There’s a light up board on the stage.

“1 ‘ere, 2 ‘eme, 3 ‘eme, Int,” it says. 1’ere has been lit up for a long time. I keep an eye on it. I was sure if was keeping track of what act we were in, but now I’m not convinced. It’s been stuck at 1 ’ere for ever. It must be broken.

Just as I’m debating whether the heaviness in my breathing is a precursor to me fainting or just throwing up, it switches to “Int.” I watch it hungrily, not even paying attention to what’s happening on stage anymore.

I have to get out of here.

A few minutes later, it switches again. “2 ‘eme.” Act two.

Oh my god. Only act two? Out of three?

No. Nope. Definitely not. I can’t do it. I can’t.

I will die. And throw up. And faint. In that order.

I look up, fuxung my eyes on the intucateoudlings in the ceiling, willing myself to get through to the end.

Not long now. I can cool off in the interval. And then just thirty more minutes.

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

I never leave in the interval. I hate leaving in the interval.

I’ve only done it once on this marathon. At an amateur performance when the room was swelteringly hot…

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

I mean, I don’t have to. I’m not on a press ticket. I paid to be here. With my own money. I’m under no obligation to stay.

I’ve given up on the performance entirely now. I don’t care what’s happening on stage. I’m thinking. A half hour interval. That’s time enough to go outside and sit in the shade for a bit, I tell myself. But half an hour though… in that time I could make it back to London Bridge. And be home by 10pm. And have an electric fan pointed directly at my face.

And who even programmes half-hour intervals? Followed by another half-hour act? That’s dragging on the evening a whole extra thirty minutes that we could be putting towards an early night.

Screw that.

I’ll see how I feel when the interval hits, I promise myself. If I want to go. I can go.

I try to focus back on the performance, but they are having some bizarre VR dream sequence now and if this goes on any longer I’m going to scream.

And then finally, finally. We make it. The stage lights darken. The house lights go up. We’re free. I burst out of my seat, grabbing my jacket and my coat and then… I’m stuck. The aisle is packed. There’s no way to get out.

I flick open my fan and try to cool myself, but it’s no good. I am going to faint.

“There’s a breeze coming from somewhere,” says a lady ahead of me.

“Yeah, it’s the woman with the fan,” says the man she’s with.

You’re welcome. Again.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_203734.jpg

But seriously, if you lot don’t shift yourselves, the pair of you are going to get yourself a vomit shower.

We creep out way down the rake, step by aching step.

“If the whole place went up in flames, it would take a long time to get out,” someone says wryly.

He means it as a joke, but I would willingly step into the heart of the fire right now if it got me out of this oven. Anything to end this agony.

Some front of housers open the side doors, and people start to pour out that way. The queue quickens.

I race down the corridor, back around the corner, squeezing myself through the bar, and the foyer, and I’m out.

Ruth spots me. Or more accurately, she spots my face.

“It is hot in there,” she says, as she’s confronted by the strawberry coloured woman in front of her.

“I’m making an escape,” I say. “I am going to faint.”

Ruth nods. “Fair enough. You head home.”

I don’t need telling twice. I’m gone. Back down the hill. Back to the station. My fan flapping the whole way.

The Two Ghosts of Queen's House

Seven o’clock starts are tricky as fuck. Especially when they’re in Greenwich. But after a slightly leg-jiggly journey on the DLR, I’ve made it to Romney Road with twenty whole minutes to spare. I can even see my theatre for tonight. Queen’s House. In all its gleaming white glory. The problem is, how to get there? The first pair of gates I passed were firmly locked. As were the second.

I keep on walking, my heart beating in time with my rushing feet. There doesn’t seem to be a way in.

Is there a password or something? Am I supposed to run full pelt at the railings with the firm believe that I can move right through them? Are iron bars nothing but an collision for those confined to the mediocrities of reality?

Just as I’m considering how badly I would hurt myself if I attempted to heave myself over the iron fence, I turn a corner, and find the car park.

Oh. Well, fine then. I’ll just go in this way, shall I?

Now I’ve actually managed to get myself within the confines of this handsome house, I can relax a little bit. I have plenty of time. And only a short walk over these peaceful green lawns.

And there it is. Queen’s House. Set back from whatever bustle Greenwich can throw at a person, amongst acres of green grass.

Not a bad place to catch a bit of opera, I must say. And a fucking impressive place for a performing arts college performance. Those Trinity Laban kids have it well swish, I can tell you that for nothing.

I stop to text Helen, letting her know about the whole getting in situation. She’s running late. Don’t want her trying to scale a fence in a panic.

That done, I walk up the path, and find a man holding a piece of paper, waiting to greet people next to a sign advertising tonight's performance.

“Do I give me name or…?” I ask.

“Are you a performer or…?”

No, mate. Clearly not. I want to ask if they’re missing a performer, but I fear he might ask me to step in. “Err, a ticket buyer?” I try.

“Right. Err let’s check if it’s here. What’s the name?”

I give it.

I’m not on the list.

“Right,” he says. It doesn’t sound like this is the first time his list has come up short. “That’s fine. I don’t know why they gave me this list. The reception is in the Orangery, around the Queen’s House, and past the colonnade.”

Well, okay then. I follow his instructions, around the house, through the colonnade, and out the other side.

processed_IMG_20190703_184503.jpg

There seems to be a bit of a party going on through here. There are canapes. And drinks. And everyone looks very fancy. Too fancy.

I don’t think I’m meant to be here.

I text Helen again.

“Have you crashed a wedding?” she asks.

“Maybe?” I reply.

Hmm. Not sure what to do. I go back the way I’d come, pausing in the colonnade to peer into a covered courtyard. People are walking through. Holding programmes.

Okay, so it appears that the audience are going somewhere. And unless my geography is totally messed up, they are coming from the Orangery.

I go back, stepping into the fancy room. It’s nearly empty now. The trays of canapes desiccated. The wine drunk.

A young woman with a box of tickets in her arms rushes over.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m picking up tickets?”

“For the reception or the performance?”

“The performance. Sorry,” I say, seeing the look of panic in her face. The expression of someone who just spotted their dotty aunt approaching a new boyfriend with a handful of embarrassing baby photos on hand. “Sorry. I got sent round here, but I was like… this doesn’t look right. So I thought I better just ask.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh no! This is just for the reception. The box office is just inside the main door. Tell them you’re general admission.”

I apologise again and back away from the fancy room. Places like this are not meant for the likes of me.

Okay then. Back around the building, I avoid the man and his piece of paper and duck into the surprisingly lowly doorway, rushing down the Spartan corridor and emerging into a museum shop. This looks much more my level. There’s a proper counter, and I join the queue to pick up tickets.

They do have my name here, thank goodness, and the lady on the desk pulls my tickets out of the box.

“That’s two tickets, is that right?” she asks.

It absolutely is.

She picks two programmes up from the pile on the counter and hands them to me.

Oh, yeah. Free programmes. That’s the stuff.

“Loos are to the left,” she says, pointing further into the building. “And stairs to the Great Hall are on the right.”

The Great Hall, eh? Perhaps I will be getting all fancy tonight.

Helen turns up a few minutes later. Limping slightly from a blister on her foot.

“This way,” I say, leading her towards the stairs.

“Hang on, do you mind if I use the loos?”

Well, you can’t say no to someone who just hobbled all the way over to Greenwich to spend the evening with you, now can you?

The last people in the foyer make their way upstairs.

I use the opportunity to take some photos. It’s strange down here. Like being in a wine cellar, with that curved ceiling going on over our heads.

processed_IMG_20190703_185442.jpg

“Ready?” I ask as Helen emerges.

She is, so we go up the stairs. The Tulip Stairs, according to the signage. That’s an unusually specific name, I think as we make our way up. Not that they’re not pretty, just not particularly tulip shaped… Oh. Oh, I see.

As Helen points her phone upwards to take a photo of the view above our heads, I find myself staring into a spiralling vortex of steps. They seem to go on forever, reaching up into the heaves, the steps unfolding, like, well, petals.

processed_MVIMG_20190703_185723.jpg

And on the balustrades… iron tulips.

That answers that question then.

There’s someone giving a speech in the Great Hall. Well, I presume it’s the Great Hall. There are a lot of people in here. Sat around in those spindly golden chairs you get at weddings.

A woman standing on the other side makes a big circle gesture with her arms to indicate that there are seats going spare over in the far corner.

Helen and I pick our way over between the silent rows.

Oops. Bit late.

Never mind.

The speech goes on. A potted history of the house. … I zone out. This room is far too pretty to be listening to this sort of thing. It’s the kind of room where you want murder and intrigue, not dates of construction and alignments with the river.

Once he’s done, he’s replaced by someone else. With her own set of speeches. These ones about Trinity Laban, about the operas being performed, about how marvellous the patrons are in this room for giving their money to such a worthy cause.

Someone in the front row claps loudly. The sound reverberating around the square room. The rest of us join in, more out of obligation than agreement.

I’m just here to catch some opera, and get a venue checked off.

I look up. Halfway up the high walls is a slim balcony. There are men up there. Young men. In costume. They lean against the railing, watching the audience below, looking the kind of effortless cool that only the agonisingly young and talented can achieve.

Self-congratulatory speeches now at an end, we can get on with the business of opera. First off, some Monteverdi.

The men up in the balcony begin to sing. Their voices raining down on us.

And down here, on the small bit of space being used as a stage, a lone female laments at her fate.

I don’t know what they’re singing. It’s Italian.

But I get the idea. She’s sad, and it is oh so pretty.

processed_IMG_20190703_192252.jpg

“I think that broke my heart?” says Helen as we all applaud.

I nod. I think it broke mine too. “It’s amazing in here,” I say. “The sound bouncing off all the walls…”

“Yes, the acoustics are great.”

“Yeah, alright. You and your big words.” Honestly, always the intellectual is our Helen. As Laban people bustle about removing the table from the last opera, and prepping the room for the next, I lean back, taking in the carved struts holding up the balcony, fat wooden scrolls picked up in gold. A bit of warmth in a white room. “It is beautiful in here. I might move in.”

processed_IMG_20190703_192311.jpg

“Perhaps not in winter though… I feel it would be quite hard to heat?”

She’s not wrong. Those high ceilings and cathedral sized windows would be the very devil to keep warm. “This is so going to be your summer palace when you become dictator.”

“It’s coming you know!”

I waft my hand towards the window behind us, from where we can see the long pathway going down to the river. “You’ll have peasants marching up the lawns with pitchforks.”

Helen gives a dismissive wave. “Just get rid of them,” she says.

The boys from the last opera return, slipping into empty seats and crowding into the windowsill to watch the next piece.

A young man takes the empty seat next to me, and I squish up to give him room.

These chairs are really closely packed.

Just as the boys settle, a group of young women burst in, their voices trilling and whirling as they start the next work. A modern opera this time. About a hen party. Svadba.

It takes me far too long to notice that they sing unaccompanied. With no instrument other than their own voices, and… some tins with spoons in them.

The dunk the wooden spoons in, rotating them around the insides and taping at the exterior.

Bored of their sound effects, they hand them to audience members.

A man in the front row looks at his newly acquired prop in bewilderment. “Should I tap it,” he asks the girl who gave it to him, and gives the tin an experimental drum with the spoon.

She leaves him too it.

The friends dance around their bride, the swirling sounds of their voices echoing off the walls, layering and combining into a symphonic orchestra that builds so high I can feel my ears vibrating by the end.

“Have your seen the painting in there,” says Helen as the applause fades. She’s nodding towards a side room. On the wall is the portrait of a rather dashing young man.

“He’s… well.” Very.

“He’s a bit of an alright,” says Helen.

“He’s totes a historical hottie,” I confirm.

The applause is still going, and shows no signs of stopping. The cast has long vacated the stage.

I look at Helen. She looks at me. We both shrug. I mean, they were good. Great evening. But I haven’t clapped this much since… I don’t know… Carlos Acosta’s farewell from The Royal Ballet probably. And no offence to Trinity Laban students, but they haven’t quite yet put in twenty years hard labour as world leaders in their artform.

Eventually, it slows, and stops.

“I’m going to get a photo of historical hottie,” I say, slipping between the rows to go into the side room.

processed_IMG_20190703_201425.jpg

“Oh look, they have ceramics,” says Helen, going to have a look at the display case. But I don’t care about them. I want attractive young men with swords and gold frogging from my art.

“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be in here,” I say. And right on cue, someone from Laban walks through. They don’t say anything though. And we’re left to gaze at the art in peace.

“Oh, look at the chairs!” I say, spotting a pair of translucent chairs.

“Oh, they’re the…”

“Ghost chairs? Is that want they’re called?”

“Yeah.”

I try to remember the name of the designer, but nope. I’ve forgotten it. Never mind. Ghost chairs. You know!

Strange addition to this room though. I wonder what they’re doing here, with historical hottie and.. I squint…a young Queen Victoria?

“We should probably go,” I suggest... I kinda want to go home while there’s still a chance of an early night.

But not before I get one final photo of the Tulip Stairs.

“Sorry,” I apologise to the couple stuck behind me.

“Don’t worry. One person took a photo and got the ghost. The Queen’s House ghost,” says the female half of the pair.

processed_IMG_20190703_201614.jpg

“Oh my…” Oh my! “There’s a ghost? I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost,” I tell her.

“Well, you’re in the right place,” she says, having the grace not to sound too baffled by my exclamation.

I take this as confirmation that she’d like to hear more.

“I’ve wanted to meet one for years, but I don’t think they like me,” I say. “I’m just too keen.”

“They think you’re needy,” agrees Helen.

“They do!”

The couple slips away quietly. I can’t say I blame them. If even the ghosts don’t appreciate my enthusiasm for them, I can’t expect the residents of this mortal plane to get on board.

Still, the sun is still shining and it’s only…

“That was only an hour and a quarter long,” I say to Helen as we walk down the path back towards the road. “The perfect evening!”

“And look! They’ve opened the gates for us,” she says, pointing to the end of the path.

No going through the car park for us!

We can just saunter, or at least stagger, through looking all chic in our sunglasses and…

Shit.

“Shit,” I say. “I forgot my jacket,” I say, already turning round to run back in.

Through the foyer, up the Tulip Stairs, hurried explanation of my appearance to the usher, into the Grand Hall, dart between all the singers and patrons to get to my seat right at the back, reach under, grab my jacket, nod to the usher on the way out and…

“You just wanted to see if you could find the ghost, didn’t you?” says Helen.

“No!” Yes. “And I already saw a ghost anyway. Two of them,” I say, remembering the chairs.

It's not much, but you've got to take your victories where you can find them.

processed_IMG_20190703_201706.jpg

It reminds me, that it's not so bad, it's not so bad

I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not from London originally. I grew up in the arse-end of Somerset, in a house on-top of a hill, almost completely surrounded by woodland. Through the small gap in the trees we had a view of an 11th century church and, on a clear day, Glastonbury Tor. For the majority of my childhood, my only choice of footwear was my black school shoes, and my green wellies. I didn’t own a coat that wasn’t waxed until I was at university.

My village didn’t have a shop. There was the church, of course. Open one Sunday a month, and on Christmas Eve. A pay-phone at the bottom of the hill. A post-box. And cows. Lots of cows. During long summers, they would grow restless and break the fences, storming into our garden and baying at the moon until I was sent out in the middle of the night, a Barbor jacket slung over my pyjamas, to knock on the doors of the local farms, until I found the farmer responsible and convince him to come over, all grumbling and tired, and fetch his livestock home.

In the morning we would wake up to find the grass overturned by hoof prints. The flowers trodden down. And the dog in hysterics.

Still, the cows invading was better than when the hunt came through. They were technically banned from crossing our land (we were always a friend of the foxes), but they never listened. They would burst through the hedges, leaping over fences to cross our fields, leaving chaos and my mother’s curses in their wake.

Curses that would be repeated bloodily down the phone to the water company whenever our supply ran out, like clockwork, every August. Great lorry loads would inch their way up the tiny lane towards our house to deliver bottles of the stuff, to tide us over until the water tanks could be refilled.

The power-companies weren’t so easily bullied. We were often left without electricity for days on end whenever the lines went down.

Anyway, this long nostalgia-fest is just my way of telling you that there definitely wasn’t a theatre. I didn’t see my first proper, professionally-staged, play until I was fourteen, on a school trip.

I thought it was dreadful.

I didn’t go again until I was well in my twenties.

All this is to say, I don’t have only fond memories of going to the theatre as a child to draw on in this marathon.

When my native London friends get all misty-eyed over the Polka or the Half Moon, I’m left to counter with tales of the Bath and West show, or the local sheep dog trials.

As I arrive at the Unicorn Theatre this sunny Saturday afternoon, it is my first ever visit to the famous London Bridge venue.

After the pokiness of the Polka, I’m surprised by just have vast this place is. And modern. And bright.

Stepping through the automatic doors, I’m met by a photographic mural of swimming goldfish, which does rather make me wonder about the huge glass windows.

“Are you here for Dido?” an usher in a purple polo shirt asks me, in the gentle voice of someone who is used to a rather younger clientele.

I tell her that I am, and she directs me towards the box office.

She doesn’t look surprised that a grown up woman has turned up to a kids’ theatre without a little one in tow.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out why.

There aren’t any children here.

I look around as I wait to pick up my ticket.

This place is packed with grown-ups.

A few months ago, back when I was booking my ticket, I’d spent whole minutes debating whether the age guidance of 11 - adult was inclusive of adults, or if it had a cut off before the age of majority. But, by the looks of it, the fully-grown population of London have had no such qualms.

Now, I don’t know much about the story of Dido, it’s a long time since my (limited) classical education, but I presumed, it being a co-production with this most illustrious of kids’ theatres, that it would be suitable for children.

Finally, it’s my turn at the box office, and my eyes land on a sign balanced next to the freesheets. “Dido’s suicide will be presented on stage,” it reads.

Dido’s suicide?

What the hell is this opera?

I grab a freesheet, and a synopsis (which for some reason are two separate documents) and start reading.

Dido, queen of Carthage… blah blah blah… love… gods… rejection… kills herself. What the actual fuck.

Who wrote this thing?

Henry Purcell.

Oh. I mean…. Okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Henry Purcell. Adore him. The Baroque era is totally my jam. You can keep Stravinsky’s angry strings, and Britten’s boring drones. I love the orderliness of Handel and Vivaldi and Corelli and Bach. Well, not so much Bach. Johann Sebastian can do one, quite frankly. But the others, for sure.

Plus, after a sneaky non-marathon trip to catch the new Larbi piece at the Opera House, I had fallen in love again with Purcell’s Cold Song, and was keen to hear more.

But for an eleven year old?

I don’t know, man. This whole thing doesn’t strike me as particularly adapté aux enfants. And I say that as the type of pretentious wanker who can’t say ‘suitable for children’ in English like a normal person.

The house isn’t open yet, so I have time to wander around.

It’s really nice here.

There are vinyls on the floor instructing you JUMP and GIGGLE. I bet parents love the one saying HAVE AN ICE CREAM.

I manage to convince myself that if you perform all the actions, in the exact right way, and in the exact right order, a portal into some magical other world will open and take you off for a fantastic adventure.

I must have done it wrong, because when I gaze at the ceiling, by order of the vinyl message to LOOK UP, I see nothing but white up there.

I knew I should have bought an ice cream.

Oh well.

The house is open now, and we begin the long traipse up three floors worth of steps, past little balconies full of toys, and a deconstructed piano.

The ushers are all primed with freesheets and plastic cups, wet wipes, and indulgent smiles. Slightly strained looking indulgent smiles to be honest, as if they don’t quite know how to deal with a pile of opera-fans brandishing pink ENO tickets instead of their usual clientele.

Round the corner, through the door, and there it is. The Weston Theatre.

It’s big. Much bigger than I expected.

Much bluer too.

The seating is curved round a thrust stage, which goes back and back and back into the far distance. And I’m suddenly jealous of everyone who grew up in London and got to enjoy shows on this massive stage instead of splattering their way through cowpats in order to drag their dog away from a very aggressive badger.

The cast are already out there, warming up their voices and their bodies. One lady is sprawled on the floor, twisted her hips, first one way, then the other.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of set, but there are what looks like three conifer trees hanging from the lighting rig, and I am very excited about them.

As I lean forward to get a better look at these arboreal flying wonders, the pages of the freesheet cascade from my knee onto the floor.

I crouch down, off my seat, scrabbling to pick them up.

Damn booklet wasn’t stapled.

I shove the folded pages back together and stow it safely in my bag.

Just in time. The lights are dimming.

The harpsicord strikes up a tune. Oh, that’s the stuff.

But just as I am about to lose myself in the lush geometry of Purcell’s music, I realise something.

I can’t make out what the hell this lot are singing about.

One scene rolls into another. Dido (I think that’s Dido) sips wine while curled up in a very uncomfortable looking armchair. A great sprawl of fake grass is rolled out. The trees decend from the heavens. There’s a picnic. Dido’s bloke takes over a glass of champagne to the conductor (she sniffs it delicately before placing it on the ground, untouched). Dido’s bloke then stands at the front of the stage and gets rained on. I think this is my queue to feel sad.

“What’s going on,” whispers a small voice from a few rows behind me.

I await the answer eagerly. I could do with some help on the matter too.

No reply comes, though whether this is due to the small voice’s caregiver wanting to respect the code of audience silence, or the lack of an answer, I cannot tell you.

A few minutes later, the small voice asks again: “What’s happening?”

I don’t know, kid. I just don’t know.

What is happening? Or rather, what happened to make the people at the Unicorn and ENO think that a child’s version of Dido was something needed to be staged?

As Dido takes a total of three pills before lying on the ground to die I can’t help but question: Who asked for this? And why?

And why didn’t they staple the damn freesheet?

Read More

She smelt a ghost (and she liked it)

Helen is standing in The Charterhouse courtyard. It’s early evening and the shadows are creeping their way up the old stone walls. The cherry blossom is swirling.

It’s like something out of a dream.

Not my dreams. My dreams usually involve me fleeing my childhood home, chased by some unseen figure. And being unable to close doors because they are too small to fit the frame.

Please don’t psychoanalyse me.

Anyway, it’s like something out someone else’s dream. The dream of a fictional character, rendered for the screen by a director with a large locations budget and a problematic CGI habit.

“This is just…” I say.

Helen spreads out her arms to encompass this magnitude of fairytailness that we had found ourselves in.

“You’ll like this,” she says, showing my something.

It’s a small piece of black card, with the letter C inscribed on it in gold sharpie.

It’s a ticket! An actual ticket!

Helen’s right. I do like this.

I want to get my own. We go inside. I’m immediately disappointed.

Modern. Everything is modern. The type of modern that looks like it was bought in baulk from an IKEA showroom. Acres of pale blond wood, punctuated by recessed lights.

I take my C-marked ticket with bad grace.

There's some sort of merch table action going on. We bypass it and make our way into the next room and... oh, yeah. That's the stuff. A wooden staircase, all boxy sides and wooden hounds guarding the lintels. Leaded windows. Towering paintings. And a statue of some dude in a ruff, who is possibly James I, but my history isn't good enough to confirm it, snuggling up against a hi-vis jacket. Helen makes short work of identifying the kings in the portraits, but I'm not wearing my glasses so I have to take her word for it.

"If you'd like to step into the library, there's a bar," says a woman with a bright smile. "You can stay here if you like, but..."

Nope. I'm done with this room. I want to see what else is in this place.

"I don't want to be one of those wankers that only likes old buildings," I say to Helen as I pause to take a photo of a door. "But I really like old buildings."

"I really like old buildings too."

"I have a theory," I start, as a theory has just occurred to me. "Ugly buildings get torn down. So only the nice old buildings survive. Apart from the Coliseum. But the Coliseum is so fucking ugly, it's actually fabulous." And anyway, the Coli isn't anywhere near as old as this fucking building.

Helen grabs me, saving an old lady from going flying as I turn around and around, trying to take in everything about this new room, all at once. The windows! The portraits! The fireplace! Oh my fucking god, look at that fuking fireplace. I could roast an entire hog in that damn thing.

But instead of a hog, there's a trunk inside. The wood so darkened by age it looks almost black.

I'm fairly confident there's a skeleton inside. Or possibly a pile of letters incriminating a minor lord of treason. I really want to open it to find out, but there are too many people around. (Helen grabs my arm again, saving yet another old lady from having to perform a three-point airborne manoeuvre).

The towering fireplace on one side is matched by a no less impressive door on the other. Short and squat, it looks designed for someone who barely clears five foot tall, but passed that loop on their belt-size centuries ago. I imagine a pair of liveried servants heaving with a specially designed stick, to lever their rotund master through the doorway, where he would emerge on the other side with a satisfying POP.

Helen offers to buy me a drink. I suspect in an effort to save the old ladies of the audience from further incident.

The bar is set up on a long table, with an arrangement so elaborate it must look spectacular in The Charterhouse's wedding brochure. Endless rows of shiny glassware are balanced on upturned crates. There's a smart little price list nestled next to the tumbers.

Wine. Beer. Soft drinks.

The holy trinity of pop-up bars everywhere.

I'm not much of a wine drinker even at the best of times, but drinking out of one of these squeaky clean glasses in this environment strikes me as ridiculous. Wine should be drunk out of a goblet. Or perhaps a cup carved from horn. Not glass that's been run through the dishwasher with extra rinse aid.

"What are the soft drinks?" asks Helen.

We investigate.

Two jugs. One orange. The other looking so watered down it could only be elderflower. No ice. Warm elderflower. Quite possibly the least appetising thing in the world. Next to warm orange juice that is. I pass, and return to admiring the fireplace.

"Okay, I'll take it," I announce to The Charterhouse in general. "I'll move in. Do you think they ever need those Guardian people? I could do that."

People are beginning to head upstairs. We follow them.

"Very Liberty," says Helen, examining the hound's head fixed on the top of the balustrade.

She's right. It is very Liberty. Although a bit lacking in the soft furnishings department. Or any department. This is a beautiful building, but a rubbish shop.

"Go ahead," offers Helen as a dapper-looking gentleman with a walking-stick waits for us to go in.

He indicates that we are the ones that should go, instigating a battle of politeness between the two of them.

I smile. This is a game the gentleman with a walking stick can't possibly win. I've seen Helen use her ruthless friendliness in action before. He's not playing with an amateur here.

But then he draws out a trump card so shocking I'm left reeling.

"I live here," he announces.

I'm sorry, you what?

"You live here?" asks Helen, clearly also requiring some clarification on the matter.

He doesn't offer any, other than confirming that he does indeed live here.

I didn't realise that was an actual option.

I can't let this opportunity go to waste. "Well, if you ever need a roommate..."

He laughs. "Promises. Promises."

That settled, we move on, following the crowd through a dark antechamber and then...

"Wow."

I mean... wow is pretty much the only response you can have to a room like this.

Helen is the first to find her voice.

"Look at the tapestries!" says Helen. "Actual, real tapestries."

"Look at the ceiling!" I respond.

Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

The chandeliers! The walls! The floor!

The fireplace!

If I thought the one downstairs was impressive, the one here is on a whole different level. Extending from wooden floor to intricately moulded ceiling, the fireplace is an extravaganza of religious carvings and inlays, picked out with gilt. There's a stone surround. And a brick backing. And suddenly I understand that woman who married the Eiffel Tower, because I am in love with this fireplace and ready for commitment.

"C?" says the woman on the door, seeing our tickets. "You're in the section right at the back."

We head right to the back, picking our way around the reflective stage that lies like a shimmering pool in the centre of the room.

Two rows of seating lie either side of the stage, with the section at the back is slightly separated from the main body, set at an angle and tucked away beside the piano.

"Where do you want to sit?" I ask.

Helen slides into the second row, but I pause.

There's no rake. If I've leant one thing on this marathon, it's to be very careful choosing a seat when there's no rake.

"What about sitting on the platform?" I ask.

The last row, right at the back, and almost around the corner, is raised on a high platform. But I suspect that its inferior placement will be more than compensated for by the extra height.

We try it out.

I'm right.

The view is staggering. From our elevated position, we have a clear view right down the stage. I can see everything. I feel like a king upon his throne. No, better yet: a queen.

I get out my fan. It's very warm up there. ("Don't faint," warns Helen. She knows I have form.) It's cooling, but more importantly, adds to the whole regal thing I've got going on.

A lady comes out. I lean back in my chair. I'm used to this drill. I've already seen this show. Back at the Old Church. And due to marathons beyond my control, I'm seeing it again. I would be mad at OperaUpClose for programming two London dates on their Maria Stuarda tour, but I'm sitting in the most beautiful room I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to get worked up about it at this point.

"The very room that Elizabeth herself met with her council," she says. "As she will later on in the opera."

I sit up. What the what?

Elizabeth? Here? In this room?

Holy...

The opera begins. Donizetti is doing the very most. Epic sound fills the room, pressing us back against our seats. It's hard to remember to breath.

The piano is right next to us, and the pianist is flicking pages, conducting, and pounding out those notes in a fever of motion.

With Helen next to me, I get the giggles as Leicester bangs on about Mary's beauty to Talbot. "Ah, the poor woman!" he says. "And she was such a beauty." As if beauty enhances tragedy.

Helen leans into me. "Leicester is a fucking idiot," she whispers.

I nod.

Leicester is a fucking idiot.

Oh, Donizetti. Your music is gorgeous, but you really don't know the fuck about anything.

I'm so glad Helen is here. I just knew this opera would rile her up. And no one gets riled up more eloquently than Helen.

Ignoring the sign that states very clearly that only staff and brothers are allowed past that point, I step onto the mezzanine and look down at the foyer below.

 

“But the sign said brothers,” says Helen, her mind always whirring. “It’s it still a religious order?”

Although I love the present tense, writing in it can be a total mind-fuck. Anyway, hello. I bring Do not be afraid. I bring great news. It turns out you totally can live at The Charterhouse. If you are over sixty. Don't have any money. But also don't owe any money. And some other rules that are too tedious to list here. I'm a little young to put in my application at the moment, but now that I finally have a goal worth pursuing in my life, I will be dedicating the next twenty-eight years to being poor (check) and paying off my credit card (no-cheque).

Read More

Well Sarki

"What does a free drink mean?" asks someone in the queue at the bar.

Sounds like a stupid question, but it had been one I'd been asking myself.

"I don't know," comes the reply. "They just said a free drink from the bar."

"So, wine? Or like... can I get a double?"

Silence. I could only presume the answer came in the form of a shrug.

I looked up at the menu. There was wine. And beer. Coke in all its variants. Water. And spirits. But no indication of which ones could be requested in exchange for the small drinks token we had been given.

I'm not a wine, or a beer drinker. And I only really go for the fizzy stuff when there's nothing else on offer. As for water, I've got some in my bar. And spirits don't tend to be included in these offers. Should I wait it out to find out?

"Can everyone move to the other side?" calls the man behind the bar. The queue shuffles its way to the other end of the bar.

I go with them.

The queue is long. Really long. And I decide the thing I want, the thing I really want, is to get out of the queue and take some photos of this venue. That's the real reason I'm there after all.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't at the Cutty Sark to find a new drinking hole. I was there to get some ship-action going on. It's not every day you get to wander around beneath the bow of a nineteenth-century clipper.

I think the good folks at Royal Museums Greenwich are fully aware of this, so open the doors a full 45 minutes before the show starts.

I had missed out on this precious wandering time because of my inability to ever judge how long a journey on the DLR will take. I rocked up with only ten minutes to go, and I spent half of them standing outside, gazing in rapture and trying to work out how to possibly take a photo that would capture this ship in all its beauty. Did I want the corner of the pub in the shot to show off the surrealness of seeing a ship there? Or perhaps have the masts stark against the night sky?

Nothing seemed right, and I just had to accept that I am not a photographer and you'll just have to live with that, as I do.

When I came to realise this, there was nothing left to do but go inside, give my name, pick up the drinks token and...

"Can I get one of these?" I asked, indicating the stack of programmes on the desk.

Turns out I absolutely could, because they were absolutely free.

Score.

After that, I was pointed in the direction of a staircase that would take me down, deep into the bowels of the earth, the hull of the ship descending with me.

At first I didn't see it. The theatre. But as the smooth curves of the dark ship fell away from me, I spotted it. The seats first. Rows of them. And then the stage. Small. Nothing more than a backcloth and a platform stuck in front of it. Like one belonging to the travelling players of a forgotten era.

I was there for Pirates of Penzance, which as shows go for watching under the looming shadow of a sailing ship, is pretty unbeatable.

"If it's terrible, we can leave in the interval," says a man sitting behind me.

His companions don't sound so sure about this deal of his,

"Apparently, it's an operetta, not an opera," he soothes. "So hopefully it's not terrible."

The musicians stroll down the big staircase, dressed in full pirate get up. With embroidered waistcoats, tricorner hats and everything.

That gets an audible reaction from the row behind me, and coos of appreciation replace the grumbles of discontent.

A few minutes later, it's the turn of the cast, the ladies wrestling with large skirts as they make their way down the endless steps and cross the huge space towards the stage.

It's my second Pirates of the year. When I started out on this marathon, I never considered this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, would be the one to steal the Most Viewed category. I figured that honour would go to some Shakespeare or other, but here we are, serving up those corny Cornish Pirates, and I've loving every minute of it. And where Wilton's was all boys in skirts, this version has meta staging and operatic trills. Because while Pirates may be an operetta, and not an opera, the company performing it, The Merry Opera, are, as the name implies, of the opera, and not the operetta, variety.

When the cast hurried back up to the stairs for the interval, in a manner which must be doing wonders for their cardiovascular fitness, the audience headed to the bar.

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

Abandoning the queue, I roamed the full length of the ship up towards the viewing platform, from where you get a real sense of the scale of the thing, with all the people below scurrying about like little insects.

But what really drew my attention, was what lay below. A chorus of figureheads, bursting out of their display like a battalion of avenging angels. Even the most cherubically cheeked among them rendered demonic by the shadows cast by their companions.

I took a few photos, but their sinister glares get the best of me and chased me back to my seat.

The free drinks must have done the trick because the audience was noticeably more excited than I had left them.

To be honest, I'd been a little concerned about the lack of humming among the older male contingent. When the good ship G&S doesn't bring about some humming among the audience, you know something's gone wrong. But I neededn't of worried. A few rival hummers started from opposing rows in what I can only describe as a hum-off. But before a winner could be declared, they were both blasted out of the competition by a woman letting out a shrill peal of opera-warbles.

"Wow," says her neighbour, sounding a little unsure about the whole thing.

Taking this as encouragement, she does it again. And again. But the repetition does nothing to widen her repertoire. It's always the same couple of notes, repeated in impressively parrot-like fashion.

People are starting to look around. But this newly acquired audience only encourage her.

Just as I wonder whether I should applaud, the band reappear.

We were ready to start the second act.

Dastardly deeds and even worse word-play follows. True love triumphs. The Major General out-raps the cast of Hamilton when he goes double-speed. Pirates are marked out as the very naughty children they are. Everyone gets a touch sentimentally patriotic. And I get my fix of boys in eyeliner.

Bliss.

Oh, and the man who thought that offered his group the opportunity to leave in the interval? Yeah, they came back for act two. I guess operettas aren't necessarily terrible after all.

Read More