Language Fail

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately. Like, why am I dragging myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning to watch a show? (Answer: marathon reasons). Or, why did I book myself a second show to go to, on this same exact Sunday? (Answer: marathon reasons). And the ever constant: is this place even a theatre, Maxine? (Answer:… still working on this one). 

After making it back to Hammersmith, I spent the afternoon eating too many carbs and clutching the cat for comfort. But now it’s time to go back out. Theatre 239 waits for no blogger. 

Thankfully I don’t have far to go. Just around the corner, actually. I can walk it. Heck, I can probably sit down and sail there on a slide made of my own tears of exhaustion. 

I just really hope it is an actual theatre. 

It’s so hard to tell. 

Everywhere’s a theatre these days. Buses, boats, gardens and squares. And yet, also no where. I struggle to find a single play to book in spaces to claim to have that title. 

Well, there’s only one way to find out sometimes. 

I’m off to the Polish Social and Cultural Association to see what they’ve got for me and my marathon needs. 

I bundle myself inside my jacket and wander off down to King Street. 

The letters P. O. S. K. shine dully against the grey walls that look by rights as if they should belong to the local council. 

I head up the stairs and through the glass doors. 

There’s a reception just opposite, but there’s no one standing behind the desk. 

I look around, wondering what to do. 

Not for long though. Because there’s a queue on the other side of the lobby, and it’s lined up infront of a window marked “Kasa.” Which, if you don’t speak Polish, which I do not, is helpfully translated underneath. “Box Office.” 

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I join the queue. 

It moves fast. Most people seem to be in ticket purchasing mode rather than picking up, transactions happening in rapid Polish as cash is slipped across the counter. 

“Hi!” I say when I reach the front. “The surname’s Smiles?” 

“Smiles?” 

“Smiles.” I think I’ve just outed myself as a non-Pole here. “I booked online?” I say, turning around my phone so that she can see the Eventbrite confirmation on my screen. 

She looks through the ticket box. And then looks through again. Her fingers deftly move between letters as she searches all the possible spelling combinations. 

No luck. 

She beckons with her hand. “Can I see?” she asks, motioning to my phone. 

“Hang on,” I tell her as I hurriedly unlock it for her and hand it over. 

She prods at the screen, zooming in to read the information. 

Once she has confirmed that I did indeed purchase my ticket in advance, she slides my phone back over the counter. 

“How much was the ticket?” she asks. 

“22.15?” I say, reading the numbers on the screen doubtfully. Twenty-two fifteen. Hard to believe there was a time in my life where I would have baulked at paying that. The marathon does weird things to a person. 

“Two tickets?” she asks, holding up two fingers to indicate the number of the tickets. 

“No. One,” I say, holding up a single finger and thus demonstrating the other side-effect of this marathon – being a lonely loser on a Sunday evening. 

She nods, opens a small booklet, and tears out a ticket for me. A proper ticket. With a seat number and everything. 

In 238 theatres I haven’t seen the like. 

Tickets torn from a little booklet. 

Whatever next?

“How much are the programmes?” I ask, spotting a pile of them on the desk. 

The two fingers go up again. “Two pounds,” she says. 

“Great!” I find two pounds coins and give them to her, and she slips a programme under the window in exchange. 

That done, I walk around the lobby, trying to get a sense of where I am. 

It’s a bit fancy in here. Not at all like a council building. 

There’s a water feature in the middle of the foyer, surrounded by chairs. The walls are lined with lists of names, which I admit, I originally thought we’re there for depressing war reasons, but no. They are all names of people who contributed to the funding of this building, and that is the exact opposite of depressing. 

A pillar is being used as a noticeboard, advertising various events coming up, in Polish and English. 

A very small child runs in, banging into a roller banner with a smack of her chubby palms. 

“Posk!” she shouts out, clearly very pleased with her ability to read. 

Her dad runs up after her, removing the chubby palms from the banner before sounding out the letters for her, with the correct Polish pronunciation. 

At the back, there’s a gallery. I walk around the exhibition. The paintings are nice. Bright and brilliant and full of life. There’s even one of ballet students, wearing matching floating skirts. Obviously, I like that one best. 

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Back in the foyer and people are starting the make their way through the doors on the far side. 

There’s no signage, but I trust they know where they’re going, so I follow them. 

Corridors lead off in all directions, but the stairs looks like the popular option. So I take them too. 

A pretty blonde woman says something to me in Polish. I shrug apologetically, and she moves away without another glance. 

Up the stairs and everywhere is heading through a door marked as “Teatr.” I’m fairly confident that’s the theatre. 

People turn around, their faces lighting up as a man in a suit approaches. 

“Hiiiiiii,” they all say in that very particular way people do when they know someone involved in a show. “We’re so excitedddddd.” 

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I manage to make it through the fangirls, and I show my ticket to the woman on the door. 

“Ah,” she says. Followed by a string of Polish. 

“Err, sorry?” I say, embarrassed by my lack of language skills. 

She smiles at that. “You are upstairs in the balcony,” she translates, pointing behind me to the staircase. 

“One level up?” I ask. 

“Yes, up the stairs.” 

So off I go, up the stairs. 

There is no sign Teatr sign up here. But there is a man, who smiles welcomingly as I dither on the landing. 

I show him my ticket and he waves me in. 

And will you look at that. It’s a proper little theatre. The existence of a balcony should have been a clue, but still, it properness of it all takes me by surprise. It has proper raked seating. And a proper red curtain. And proper lighting running on rigs down the wall. 

What it doesn’t have, is very good numbers on the seats. Only a few of the original plaques remain, the rest are a collage of stickers and scrawls. 

“Sorry, I’m looking for thirteen?” I ask a man in the front row. 

He points further in. “That way.” 

“Sorry,” I say again. “I can’t count.” 

I inch my way past him, squinting at the underside of all the flip seats, trying to make out the numbers until a reach a woman sitting further in. 

“Sorry, what number are you?” 

She’s twelve. Finally. Found it, 

Turns out, none of this matters that much because no one else joins us in our row. The two of us sit next to each other, bookended either side by multiple empty seats. 

I can see why. The front row isn’t all that great. 

The barrier in front of us is high. As soon as I attempt to lean back, or even slouch, the entirety of the stage disappears behind it. 

I’m going to have to do something I never allow myself to do in a theatre. 

I’m going to have to lean forward. 

May the theatre gods forgive me, because the people sitting behind me certainly won’t. 

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I try to find the right angle. Not far enough forward that I can see the very small orchestra down in front of the stalls, but just enough so that I can see the stage. 

Perching here, on the edge of my seat, I can just about see the screen off to one side. It says Jawnuta on it. That’s the name of the opera I’m seeing tonight. An opera I know nothing about other than it’s in Polish. I think. 

I hope the presence of the screen means there are going to be surtitles, because, as I’ve just found out, I don’t actually speak Polish. 

Everyone starts clapping. 

The man in the suit comes in. He waves at the audience. Looks like he’s conducting tonight. 

A moment later, the very small orchestra are playing. 

The curtain rises. 

And we’re off. 

We’re in a Gypsy camp. Or a Traveller camp, I should probably say. In Poland. Jawnuta’s daughter is in love with the mayor’s son. There’s lots of songs about not wanting to work, stealing animals from the locals, and being starving but free. 

With plenty of references to ‘Jews,’ which is never worrisome at all. 

The music is nice though. Very jolly. 

In the interval, we’re joined by someone new in the front row. Probably got sick of staring at the backs of our heads and upgraded himself. 

Sucker. 

Some more applause for the conductor later and we’re into act two. The mayor totally does not approve of his darling son going off with a Traveller, but it’s totes cool, bro, because it turns out the girl and her brother were actually taken in by Jawnuta after their bona fide Polish mum was found dead. So, that’s all fine. And the two definitely-Polish-and-not-Traveller-kids can get married now. 

Art before political correctness was wild.  

The cast assemble for the curtain call. There’s millions of them, on that teeny stage. I try to count them, but get muddled somewhere in the forties. 

The orchestra come up to, squishing themselves in, and the singers stomp their feet in approval. 

As the curtain lowers, a whoop emerges from the stage, and more foot stomping. 

Sounds like there is going to be one hell of a cast party tonight. 

As for me, my pyjamas await. It’s been a long day. 

The Art of the Dead Woodlouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right then. Time to investigate this joint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doors are opening now. Time to go in.

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

Ah. Okay.

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

I pick my way over to the far side.

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

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

He chooses the second row too. Next to me.

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

“I’m not sure…” replies the usher.

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

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

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

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

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

I look around.

It’s a nice room.

Very high ceilings.

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

It’s all rather nice.

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

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

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

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

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

We begin.

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

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

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

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

Ungrateful wretch.

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

We applaud.

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

The lights come up.

It’s time to go.

Except no one is leaving.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

I make it though.

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

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

Let’s do this thing.

The Delegate from Legoland

Okay, so I've come to the address. 5 Pancras Square. And apparently, my theatre for tonight is Camden Council?

I've got to give it to Tête à Tête Opera Festival. They are bringing it with the locations. First taking me to someone's actual house, that they live in, for some immersive marital anguish. And now to a great big, fancy-arse office block.

I go in, through the spinny doors, because that's the sort of place this is.

The instructions said to report to the reception, but there seems to be a bunch of people wearing Tête à Tête t-shirts hanging out in the foyer, so I go over to the nearest one of them. Just to double-check.

"Hi, hello. Do I go to reception or...?"

He stares at me with an expression poised between confusion and horror, which I have to say, I've been seeing way too much on this marathon, and I'm beginning to suspect I'm a lot scarier in person than I'd been lead to believe.

"Err..?" he says.

"For God Save the Tea..." I prompt, just in case he thinks I've there for a council tax rebate.

"Err..."

Someone else steps in. "Here are you summit papers," she says, handing me a gift bag. "If you want to take a seat..." she indicates the row of benches over by the windows. "Hang on. We're just working out how to do this. If you'd just check in with my colleague here."

I'm pointed in the direction of another Tête à Tête t-shirter.

I recognise this one. She was the barefoot woman at 10 Tollgate Drive. And once again, she has a clipboard. That's a relief. You can always trust the person with the clipboard.

"Can I take your name?" she asks.

She definitely can. A second later, I'm ticked off, and I go to find a space on the bench,

Now I have a chance to look around and get a sense of this place, but to be honest, I’m not sure it's worth the effort. Sure, I mean, it's nice enough in here. Shiny. But, like... it's an office. A very large and new office, for sure. But I gave up the corporate life years ago. It's weird being back in a place like this. I try to tell myself that as long as there's an endless supply of tea available, and no one's trying to make me hotdesk... I'm happy. I do miss the properly subsidised cafe though. Fifty pee sausage sarnies for breakfast. They made the mornings go on so much better.

To distract myself, I turn my attention to the gift bag. It's the same one I got on my last Tête à Tête outing. Same brochure (incidentally I really like this. They have a section where they post reviews of past festivals, including the bad ones, which demonstrates an unselfconscious brand of humour that I really appreciate).

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What else? There's a freesheet. Is that the summit paper? I’m not sure.

I put it all back in the bag.

A new Tête à Tête t-shirter starts walking along the bench, stopping every couple of people to tell them something.

"Just to let you know, we're waiting for a few people to turn up, as we all need to go up together," she tells my bench-neighbour.

"One question," he says, stopping her. "Is there somewhere to sit because I cannot stand."

She pauses. "Are their seats? Let me check." She rushes off to the other Tête à Tête t-shirters, who have gathered near the door, to ask about the setup. A second later, she's back. "Yes, it's seated," she tells him.

Good to know. My knee still has the clunk in it after my last Tête à Tête adventure.

"Excuse me!" Good lord. It's another Tête à Tête t-shirter. I'm beginning to lose count of them all. "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We are waiting on delegates from Camden Council to take us up to the eleventh floor where the summit will be taking place. The summit will be filmed, so please refrain from any scandalous behaviour. If you have to leave, please contact an administrative assistant, wearing a blue shirt." He indicates his own blue Tête à Tête t-shirt.

A new t-shirter steps forward, and she repeats the speech. This time in French.

I mean, I presume it's the same speech. My French isn't great. But it all sounds vaguely familiar content-wise.

The Camden delegates must have turned up, because we are all getting to our feet and queuing over by those swipe-card gate things you get in schmancy offices. The ones that make you feel you're tapping in your Oyster card when by rights your commute should be over.

And yes, before you ask, we do have swipey cards at my work. We're not that backward. But like, they have sensors by the door. Not turnstilley things. And most of the time stage door will buzz you in if you're having trouble finding your pass, like I do, every fucking morning. I think they just get sick of hearing me chant "gawd DAMMIT" fifty times in a row as I try to feel about for the thing at the bottom of my bag.

Anyway, I'm sure no one who works here has that problem. Bet they all turn up in beautifully fitted-suits, and blow-dried hair, and with fresh manicures, and exactly zero crumbs on their faces.

As we pass through, the Camden delegate holds up his hand. "You'll go in the second lift," he says, halting the queue. "Okay... you," he says, waving through one more so that the two children who've already got through, aren't left without a grownup on the other side of the border.

The rest of us hang back, waiting for the second lift.

This doesn't take long.

"Okay, next lot. Follow this lady," says the Camden delegate, and we are handed over to the lady.

I'll admit it. There's one thing I miss about working corporate. And that's the lifts. They're so fast. It’s literally buzzing it’s moving so quickly. Eleven floors in less than that number of seconds. It's almost alarming.

It's a proper office up here. There are desks and everything.

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Through a glass window I can look all the way down to the bottom. I'm not super afraid of heights, but I take a step back all the same.

No time to dawdle though, as we being hurried through into a meeting room.

Desks have been set up, with teacups and pencils and papers. I have flashbacks to the legal conferences I worked on. Horrifying.

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Those conferences didn't have flags though. And they certainly didn't have them printed up with company logos.

A woman greets us, sotto-voice, as we take our seats. "Hellooooo!" According to the freesheet, our host for this summit is Laura Hopwood.

I dither over which country I want to represent. The BP-branded Britain perhaps? Ew. No. The Ikea-screwed Sweden? Oh, someone else got their first. I make a dive for Legoland. I mean Denmark.

That seems safe enough. Right at the back.

"Oh Belgium!" Hopwood calls out as someone sits down. "Bonjour!"

Countries chosen and seats taken, we're ready to begin.

We've been invited to hear about a number of very important issues. Immigration and freedom of speech and living standards.

Our host is against all of them, and has some very strong views on the matter.

Behind her, twin screens show alarming tea-cup framed films of Boris and Maggie and Theresa, grotesque in their closeups.

Between the points on the agenda, two assistants, Mohsen Ghaffari and Tianyu Xi, run around pouring cups of tea for the audience.

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"Redbush," says Hopwood. "Or rooibos as they call it... over there."

The pot only lasts long enough to fill the cups in the front row, and it takes several more agenda points for them to get round to me.

Tucked inside our agendas is a questionnaire.

"Our voters have the right to affordable housing." says question 1a.

"Would you be happy to pay higher rent and move away from the city centre just so we can accommodate more foreign unqualified people in our cities."

a) No, that's socialism.

b) I would think about it.

Tricky.

Question 1t is much more straightforward.

"Our voters have the right to a nice cup of tea."

Deffo.

It's been a while since I tried Redbush. I take a sip. I can remember why it's been so long now. Musty.

Hopwood chivvies us along to fill in our questionnaires. There must be unanimous consensus from us at the end.

But her assistants are rebelling.

They run around, stealing pencils. Throwing them on the floor and stubbing the nibs out on the desks.

They've run out of tea. They take people's cups, pouring the contents back into the pot to be served to someone else.

A delegate from Sweden goes to take a sip, but her countryman pushes her hand back down. "Don't drink that," he warns her.

The musicians, Elena Cappeletti on cello and Lucas Jordan on flute, break away to play mournful tunes, singing of life working in the factory. The assistants gather, holding tealights in their palms, their expressions solemn.

"We've heard this one before," says Hopwood, with a roll of her eyes.

But they can't be stopped.

It's mutiny on the eleventh floor.

Hopwood needs a cup of tea.

“Do you mind?” she says to one of the delegates from Italy sitting in the front row. “I don’t know why Italy is even here…”

The Italian delegate gets up and lets Hopwood have the chair. Hopwood sits down and gratefully sips the tea. I wince. How many cups has that been in.

But it seems to be working. And assistant kneels down next to her, fanning her with a leafy branch, and Hopwood soon manages to recover herself. The agenda must be got through, after all!

But there’s another problem. The assistant Ghaffari has collapsed to the floor and no amount of kicks are getting him back to his feet.

The summit is over.

We have to go.

But not before leaving our questionnaires.

A unanimous consensus must be reached after all.

I may have spoiled my ballot paper...

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The creeper in your bedroom

I can't believe that there are areas of London where the trains only stop every half-hour. I truly cannot wrap my head around this. How do these people live? How do they work? How do they do anything or go anywhere? I cannot fathom living like that. And I grew up in a hamlet, with a once-weekly bus service. How do the people of Sydenham even theatre? Because that's what I'm here for, and I'm running late. My comfortable ten-minute buffer to get myself from the station to the next theatre on the marathon-list has now been compressed to six minutes. And I'm am not feeling good about the situation.

I run down the platform, dodging between some teenagers on some sort of official group outing that seems involve just hanging out on the stairs. Up the steep ramp and into the car park. Where now? Gawd dammit, Google maps is being an arse again. Okay, the blue circle has caught up. We're going left.

I race along the pavement, staring at my phone, willing the dot to move along the map screen that bit faster. My knee crunches under me, but I ignore it. There's no time for crunchy-knees right now. I've got an opera to get to.

I think it's the turning just over there. There's a guy walking ahead of me, his feet moving as fast as mine, his head bent low over his phone. Yup. I've found a fellow opera-goer.

We arch our way around the crescent, rushing along the narrow pavement, peering at each of the houses in turn. What number is that one? No. A little bit further. And look! There's a sign. Set up on an easel. With the title of the show that I can't type, so I'm going to have to copy and paste: THE鍵KEY.

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This must be the place. Normal people don't set up show posters on easels outside their houses.

I turn the corner and there it is. Number 10, Tollgate Drive. My theatre for the afternoon. And someone's home the rest of the time.

Not what I expected, gotta admit.

When I booked to watch an opera in someone's private house, well... this low brick bungalow was not in the mental picture I'd put together.

But it has to be the right place. There are people out here. All hanging around. So unless there's a garage sale going on out back, this must be it.

I join the queue taking up the garden path, and a barefoot woman with a Tête à Tête Opera Festival tote slung over her shoulder makes her way down, taking names.

"Hi, it's Smiles?" I tell her when she reaches me. "I still need to pay."

Yeah. I made a bit of a boo-boo booking this one. In that I didn't book at all. I was waiting for payday. Which I really shouldn't have done. Tickets were only seven quid or so. But like, I have a lot of tickets to buy, and I tend to bulk order once a week. Get the hit on my credit card done in one big bash, so it has a few days to recover before the next round.

Anyway, it sold out. Because of course it did.

So I emailed them.

I'm not one to play the "I have a blog, you know," card all that often, but I played this one to the fullest. Begging, pleading, for a ticket. I had to. There was no other way of getting this venue. It's not like the owner of 10 Tollgate Drive will be putting on a panto in their living room come Christmas. There was once chance, and I was throwing everything I had at it to make it happen.

They put me on the waiting list.

Thankfully all my sacrifices to the theatre gods have finally built up enough karma points for them to take pity on me, and a few days ago I got an email from the people at Tête à Tête saying that there was a ticket going spare. If I wanted it.

Only the one ticket. Which was a bit of a problem as Helen had also wanted to go. But I'm nothing if not selfish in pursuit of my goals, so I took it. And didn't tell Helen. Here's hoping she doesn't read this, huh?

"You can pay by cash, or there's a card machine over there," says the barefoot woman.

"I think I have cash," I say, pulling out my purse. "Do you have change?"

She does.

"Would you like a programme?"

I would always like a programme. Especially when they're free.

She hands me an A5 card, which is a hella-swish way to do a freesheet, I must say. Full-colour printing. A satin finish and everything. Nice.

Barefoot lady points out the cloakroom. Accessed through a side door. Something tells me this is going to be one fancy-arse bungalow.

I hand over my bag. I'm already having visions of knocking over some priceless vase with it. Once I have my numbered ticket from the cloakroom lady, I'm back outside, ready to tackle the next item on my agenda.

Shoes. Or rather the lack of them.

With the confirmation of my ticket had come the warning that this is a shoes-off household.

I'd prepared as well as I could, trying on six pairs of tights this morning before finding one that didn't have holey-toes, or the evidence of my terrible darning-skills.

Unfortunately, these preparations hadn't started soon enough for my footwear. I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment. Which means I have one pair of shoes. My favourite pair of shoes. Which aren't shoes at all. They're boots. With laces. And straps. And they're a bitch to remove.

"Do you mind if I squidge in to take my shoes off," I ask the people sitting over on the long bench by the front door. A couple slid down the narrow plank to give me room. "Thanks. Sorry. I did not plan my footwear."

I wrestle with the straps and buckles and laces, and eventually manage to pull them off, and tuck them away under the bench.

Then I double-check my toes.

Phew. No holes.

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The theatre gods are doing me a serious solid today.

"Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for coming," says the barefoot lady, making her way up onto the porch. "A couple of things before we go in. Can I ask you to take your shoes off." There's a shuffle as the few people who haven't got that far try to pull off their shoes without restoring to yoga-poses. An old man stumbles as he attempts to use the edge of the porch to scrape the heel of his brogues down. "There's a cloakroom and a bathroom," continues the barefoot lady. "But we ask you to use it either before or after the performance, if that's possible." Brave homeowners letting a bunch of opera-loving weirdos into their loos. Although with the whole side-door situation going on, they might just be letting us into the servants quarters. Or whatever the 2019 equivalent of that is.

"Feel free to move around the house," she continues. "We ask you not to open any doors that are closed, and to be respectful that we are in someone's home, and we are very lucky to be here. And... yeah. That's it."

Great.

That seems simple enough. It's like Punchdrunk, but we're not allowed to open drawers and rifle around in the closets.

And then someone is walking up the path.

She's dressed smartly. A cream cardigan buttoned up to the neck. Her hair pulled back with a taupe bow into a low ponytail.

She walks through us, stopping at the front door to turn around.

She introduces the tale. Telling us that when she found the key, well, that was the day everything changed.

She places her hand on the front door, and pushes it open.

She takes off her shoes, an slips on a pair of sandals, before disappearing inside.

We all look at one another. A man standing near me motions for me to go ahead.

Alright, I'll be the brave one. The first audience member to step through the door.

Inside there's a wide hallway, and beyond that a bright room with a wall full of windows overlooking the lush garden beyond.

A young woman in a smart shift dress waves her hand towards two rows of mismatched and multi-coloured cushions, laid out on the ground. We're to sit.

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I take a cushion in the second row, curling my legs around to one side.

In front of us are a wall full of bookshelves, heaving with those heavy artbooks on one side, and travel guides on the other. All interspersed with interesting looking crockery. Helen would have really loved this house.

There's a desk. At which sits a man in a suit. That's Hiroshi Amako. And behind him, two musicians. One on a double bass. The other a bamboo flute.

From his desk, Amako begins to sing.

His marriage is unhappy. He's going to start keeping a diary. To record everything that happens between them.

And then he's off, leaving us, and we are left with the decision: where to go? Most people go in pursuit of the husband. But I head in the other direction, down the corridor, turning left, and in there, I find a girl. The daughter. Akari Mochuzuki.

She paces about, moving from bedroom to office. Her fingers delving into the shelves to pull free diaries, filled with sheet music.

More audience members creep in, taking up spots around the walls, shifting and moving whenever Mochuzuki comes near, not to get in her way.

The door to the front garden is open, and from across the way I can hear other voices. The husband and the wife, singing separately, but joined together by the music travelling on the breeze, overlapping and overlaying. English switching to Japanese, and back again.

But here, in this bright bedroom, the daughter sinks down onto her bed, alone. The man her mother is having an affair with, he was the guy she wanted to date.

So wrong. So many levels.

Her head drops.

It's time to go.

Back the way I had come, along the corridor, but this time I turn right. Here I find the wife, Akane Kudo. She perches on the end of a green-upholstered sofa as she tries to process everything that is happening. I'm the only one here. It's just me and her. And two musicians. My own personal concert.

Kudo gets up, moving to the kitchen. I slide along that wall so that I can keep her in sight. She pulls out a book. A diary. She tears it open, and from between the pages, a photo slips out, falling to the floor next to my feet. I step back and Kudo picks it up. A black and white image. Someone in bed. Their face towards the camera. Comfortable. Intimate. As close to the photographer as I am to Kudo.

More people start to appear. Hugging the walls as they come in.

The corridor behind me fills as people trying to keep both rooms in view - the husband on one side, the wife on the other.

And there's a fourth character now.

A dancer.

Shirtless.

Moving slowly, his back curving back as the husband sing on from his desk.

This is the wife's new beau.

I can't say I blame her...

As our dancer, Shozo Ayaka, leans down to pick up his shirt, the audience scatters once more.

Should I follow the dancer? I kinda of want to follow the dancer.

I don't follow the dancer. I'm fairly confident that would be the creepy thing to do in this situation.

Instead, I go in search of the daughter.

But I find myself caught in the corridor, as Ayaka sprawls on the floor, music pouring in from all sides.

Oh well, I'll just have to be creepy then.

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When I find the wife and the boyfriend together in the bedroom, I don't even pretend not to be a voyeur anymore. I lurk in the corridor, as the wife pulls off that pristine cream cardigan, and removes the smart dress, and puts on something colourful and floaty instead. The boyfriend, skirtless again, is... apparently making love to her duvet as she changes.

Back in the main room, I watch with the husband as his wife emerges from the main room. We see her leave the bedroom, stepping out into the garden. Our eyes following her through those big windows, as her boyfriend joins her out there.

"I've never seen that dress before," comments the husband, almost as an aside.

I want to tell him that she was trying it on in front of her boyfriend, but I decide now is not the moment. He's having a hard enough time. They're kissing now. The wife and the dancer. The husband doesn't care about the dress anymore.

We're being led downstairs now.

Into a dark room, with nothing in it but a daybed, and those twin rows of cushions.

I pick one, and watch as more audience members come in, following their cast member of choice.

This must be the end game. As everyone comes together for one final scene.

The husband collapses onto the bed.

The double bass player taps out the husband's heartbeat against the hollow wood of his instrument.

And then he stops.

One by one, the lights illuminating the musicians' sheet music are turned off.

The daughter leaves, drawing closed the door behind her.

It sticks on something. She bends down and flicks it aside.

She turns the light off, and closes the door with a final click.

We are left in darkness.

Silence.

I feel the person next to me lifting their hands to clap. But they hold back. Just a second more to sit together, in the dark.

Our applause draws back the cast.

The light is switched back on.

Amako pulls the cloth that was covering his face away, and sits up grinning, alive once more.

I make my way back up the stairs, a little unsteadily.

Outside, one of the ushers is waiting, a basket full of forms and pens slung over the crook of her arm.

"Would you like to fill out a feedback form?" she asks us as we emerge.

Not for me. There's a train in nine minutes, and I am not going to miss it.

Boots on. Laces pulled and knotted. Strap buckled. And the same on the other foot.

Go. Go. Go. Go.

I won't miss it. Can't miss it. I have another show to get to and it's on Gray's Inn Road.

No time to dawdle...

"Would you like a brochure?" asks the barefoot woman as I prepare to run down the garden path.

"Oh..."

I look at her. She's holding out a white paper gift bag.

I don't really care about the brochure. I really want the gift bag.

"Yes please," I say, taking it from her.

Then I speed off, ignoring the clunking of my knee as I power-walk to the station, out of breath, but very pleased with my party-bag.

There's one thought praying on my mind thought.

A touch of guilt.

Helen really would of loved this.

Oh well.

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Park Life

I feel a bit sick. I have just dropped the biggest load of money I have ever spent on a ticket. Ever. And that's including sitting in the stalls for Hamilton. Like, seriously. I've broken the marathon record by nearly one hundred percent. I can't decide what's making my stomach churn more, the fact that I've spent all that money, or that I did it for the sake of getting a theatre ticked off that isn’t showing… well, Hamilton. No, it's neither of these. That thing that has my belly roiling is that I was given advice about this place, which I failed to heed because I thought I had more time. I thought I had at least another month to get here. I only checked the website a few days ago in order to plan out my August. And I was horrified to discover this summer season was coming to an end this week. And that was it. As an open-air theatre, there would be not autumn season. Once the week was over, I'd lose my chance.

I put in a press ticket request. Of course. But after thirty-six hours with no reply, I knew I had to do it. I just had to buy a ticket. All the cheap "Inspire" ones were gone. The last Friday rush had passed. I had to hand over real money. And lots of it.

Four hours later and I still want to boak.

I could have seen seven or eight fringe shows for that amount of coin. And it was all gone.

On opera.

Now, I don't mind opera.

I've had some great opera experiences on this marathon.

I've also had some dreadful ones.

But regardless of the quality of the opera, it's not exactly top of my list of what I want to spend a vast amount of money on. Like, fifteen quid: fine. Happy to hand it over. Even twenty. Great. But three times that? No, wait. Even more... oh gawd. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I have limits and we've gone way past them now.

I just keep on telling myself that hey, at least we're in the midst of Camden Fringe right now. All the rest of my tickets are around the seven to ten quid mark. And I've got some press stuff coming up. So hey, at least I'll be able to afford beans on toast to get me through to the end of the month.

But seriously, this must be the best damn opera I've ever seen. And the best damn theatre experience I've ever had. Or I'm going to ugly cry.

But, let's think positive, hey?

The park is pretty.

I've already seen three cute dogs and I've only just walked through the gate.

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The instructions on the Opera Holland Park website say to walk up the long avenue, and I'm doing just that. It's all green and sun-dappled and rather idyllic. The sort of place you can imagine a gilt carriage trundling along, a few short scenes before the angry mob start unpacking the guillotine.

At the top of the avenue, I turn left and there it is, in all its white-tented glory. Stone steps lead up to metal scaffolding, and I really hope the mob haven't decided to switch the blade for the noose.

Oh well. A theatre is a theatre. There's no avoiding it. And frankly, after spending so much on an opera ticket, I deserve whatever fate is waiting for me.

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A young lady is positioned at the top of the stairs to check these gilded tickets.

"Hi, box office?" I ask as I approach.

But someone else cuts in front of me. "So," she says sharply to the ticket checker. "Do you mind if I also check tickets?" She's wearing a lanyard. She must work here.

The ticket checker indicates that she has no problem with being joined on ticket checking duty, and our lanyarded newcomer turns around, and walks away, without saying another word, or checking a ticket.

"Err," I say, once she's gone. "I'm collecting?"

The ticket checker smiles. "Yup," she says. "Just over there." She points the way to the blue box office, up on the terrace.

I join the queue.

"Now, I recognise you," says one of the box officers to the young man in front of me. "I've seen you in the Ensemble."

They chat back and forth, trying to work out what name his ticket has been booked under. This sounds like it's going to take a while.

"Hello?" says a woman, emerging from the back of the box office. "Are you collecting?"

I tell her that I am.

"What's the surname?"

I give it.

She goes off to the back to check though the ticket box that seems to be living there for some reason.

"Hmm, I'm not finding it," she says as she comes back. "It's Smiles, yes?"

"Yes," I agree. It is Smiles.

"S-M-I..." she spells it out.

"Yup. Exactly as you would think." No fancy spellers in my family tree. A thought occurs to me. "I did book this afternoon though." It wasn't late. Four o'clock or so. But this place doesn't look the type to do things in a last minute rush.

"Ah," she says. "That would explain it. They probably haven't been printed yet."

We stand and wait until the queue has cleared at the counter.

The person on the computer taps away, never looking up as she prints out my ticket, checks it, folds the ream, and hands it to me.

I take it from her.

"I think I ordered a programme?" I ask. I can see the voucher sitting there at the top of the ream. I'm just being an arse.

She glances at me. "There's a voucher," she says, before going back to the computer.

"... thanks."

I see they hire people straight out of Charm School at Opera Holland Park.

There's another desk a few feet further along. This one has programmes.

Single for £5. A pack of four for £15.

I'm intrigued by this multibuy offer. I don't think I've seen that anywhere before. I try to imagine the type of foursome going to the opera who each want to walk away with a programme, and I'm failing. I love programmes. I always buy programmes. But I don't think I could come up with another three people to not only want to go to the opera with me, but also want a programme of their own when they know they can just borrow mine.

Is this a corporate thing? It sounds like a corporate thing.

"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a very.... sophisticated voice over the tannoy. "Welcome to the Investec Opera Holland Park. The auditorium is now open. Programmes are available in the foyer, and may we ask that you use the entrance marked on your ticket. If you require further assistance please ask a member of staff."

Well, I mean... it's a bit early to go in.

I walk around a bit, but don't get very far. The terrace is covered in white marquees which don't look like the sort to be open to random callers. That must be where people are having their picnics.

Now, I would have liked to have done the whole picnic thing, got the full Opera Holland Park experience. But, a picnic spot cost even more money. And well... that's something rather sad about eating a picnic by yourself. Unless you're sitting under a tree with a packet of doughnuts and a canned gin and tonic, in which case you are doing life to the fullest, and I respect that. But otherwise…

There's a zebra out here. Not a real one, obviously. I don't think even the deep pockets of Investec could run to that (full disclosure I don't know who or what Investec are, but I think we can all agree that their pockets are the type that comes stitched up from the tailor). The fake zebra looks a bit pissed off, now that I'm looking at him closely. His eyes narrowed as he peers under a tent canopy. Perhaps he's not a fan of the opera.

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Okay, there's nothing left to see out here. I'm going in.

I walk around the auditorium tent, careful to locate the door marked on my ticket. I don't want tannoy man to shout at me.

Inside a young woman puts on a can-I-help-you? face and I go over to her, showing her my ticket.

"Yup," she says. "You're just up here. Go to H10 on the..." she pauses as she does some mental geolocation. "Right."

I head right, as instructed, but not before I take a moment to appreciate the theatre.

It's... not what I expected.

On one side is the stage. Of course. A good size. Slightly elevated, to allow the orchestra to sit below it. Not sure the park keepers would be overly keen with them digging a pit every year.

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Over on the other side, is the seating. And lots of it.

A huge raked bank of blue-grey flip seats. They remind me a little of the ones at Troubadour White City. That same sort of temporary feel. Except I'm betting they don't have cup holders attached to them, and when I go up the steps, they don't shake and groan under my feet.

Sure enough, at H10 I find the entrance to my row.

There aren't many people in here yet.

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They are still out in the marquees, quaffing champagne and eating quails eggs or whatever people consume at opera picnics. I don't know. Perhaps it's all Tesco Meal Deals and a 16-pack of sausage rolls out there. I’m choosing to believe the former. Sounds much more fun. Go quail or go home, I say.

Speaking of going quail, let's see what my funds have bought me.

I'm in the cheapest of the non-cheap tickets. Which means that I'm on the side, rather than in the middle. But this isn't some vast opera house, so being all the side really means just being slightly left of centre. It's the Tony Blair of seating.

The rake is excellent, the seats wide, the leg room acceptable.

There's even a great big canopy over our heads, so we're not going to get rained on if the weather gets a touch more British before the night is out. Kinda defeats the point of it being open air, but I din’t think we're supposed to dwell on that.

I don't want to admit it, even to myself, but it is a bit nice in here. If the opera's any good, I could see myself being happy to pay... Oooo, thirty quid to come back again. And that's a lot. For me.

Time to look at the programme. It's nice. Matt paper. Lots of white space. Large font size, presumably to aid the… traditional opera audience. And a preference for artwork over photography. There's a bit of Renoir illustrating the synopsis and a Van Gogh opposite a page of written extracts about... I don't know... rural France, I think. That must be where the opera is set.

The programme notes are interesting enough. Although I suspect they are aimed a reader considerably more knowable then me, as I can't even identify the writers. They are presumably familiar to the Opera Holland Park audience, as they make no effort to explain who they are. "Robert Ticknesse looks at the life and work of Alphonese Daudet," one says, but who Robert Thicknesse is, or what his expertise on the matter of Daubet is, is not something the programme chooses to illuminate. A few pages earlier, a poem is credited to "Leanora Volpe, on the occasion of her father's thirtieth summer at Holland Park," as if I know who Leanora Volpe or her father is.

As my flick through continues, I find another Volpe signing off the welcome note. Ah. The mysterious father, I presume. That's one person identified. Still not sure about the others.

Someone is walking through my row.

"Are you going past?" I ask, half rising from my seat.

"No, no," he says. "You have the misfortune of being next to me."

I want to tell him that I'm rather afraid it's the other way around. He's stuck next to an opera ignoramus for the evening, but instead I just mutter something to the effect of me coping with his presence.

"Ladies and gentlemen," comes that sophisticated voice over the tannoy again. "Please take your seats. Tonight's performance is about to begin."

"Rubbish!" says my neighbour venomously as he sits down.

He's not wrong. It's only twenty past seven. Unless the conductor is keen to get to the pub early tonight, we won't be starting for another ten minutes.

But the announcement has seem to have done the trick, as there's now a trickle of people coming in and taking their seats.

"Ladies and gentlemen we ask for you to please take your seats because the performance will begin in three minutes and please use the entrance marked on your tickets."

He's getting desperate now. That's a lot of pleases. The conductor must be raring to go. A three-minute warning at it's still only 7.25pm.

"Ladies and gentleman, " says the sophisticated man over the tannoy. "Please take your seats the performance will begin in two minutes. Use the entrance on your tickets. May I remind you latecomers will not be admitted."

He barely takes his finger off the button before he's ready again.

"Ladies and gentleman. Please take your seats the performance will begin in one minute. Picnic baskets may not be used and latecomers will not be admitted."

I kind of wish I stayed outside now, watching all the front of housers running around and begging the picnickers to please leave their baskets and come outside. Those quails eggs will still be there in the interval.

There's another tannoy annoucement. This time we really are, cross-our-fingers-and-hope-to-die, about to begin. Filming and photography are banned. And thank you for our cooperation.

It's 7.28pm.

"It's very baronial for a farm," snorts an older gentleman as he takes a seat in the row behind me.

I look over at the set.

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A stone ruin leant grandeur back the backdrop of what remains of Holland House.

Down by the orchestra pit an usher holds up an A4 laminated sign covered in text.

The lady sitting on my left peers at it. "There. Will. Be. Loud. Gunshots," she reads.

"Yes?" says the man she's with.

"Can't read the rest," she says with a vocal shrug.

Nor can I. I suppose I better put on my glasses.

The conductor emerges from the side of the stage, all bouncing and smiling. He must really be looking foward to his pub outing.

We all dutifully applaud as he takes his place in front of the pit, the lights dim, and we begin.

As the music pours out of the pit, the lady sitting next to me sneezes.

She leans forward, reaching under her seat for her bag. She groans as she lifts it up and pulls it open and starts rummaging instead. She pauses, drawing in a sharp breath, then sneezes again.

Someone sitting in front of us turns around to see what's happening.

The sneezing lady whispers "sorry" in return, and pulls out a tissue, which she snuffles into.

As she drops her bag back down to the ground, I begin to feel a tickeling scratch in my throat, and I realise the one flaw with the whole opera-in-the-park thing.

Hayfever.

Did I take an antihistamine this morning? I can't remember. Which probably means no.

I thought the worst of the pollen was over.

But sitting in a tent, in the middle of a park, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of trees... my eyes are beginning to itch.

I smoother my cough, but it's no good. There's another one waiting in the wings.

The singers are coming out. I try to concentrate on the surtitles, displayed on a trio of screens above the stage, but it's no good. My throat is rebelling and I can't follow along.

They're singing about goats? I don't know.

But as soon as it starts, it subsides again.

And I'm able to concentrate on the performance.

Along with the rest of the audience.

L'arlesiana. An opera I'm not even sure how to pronounce, but seems to be about a bloke, who is engaged to a city girl, which seems to be opera-code for being a bit of a slut. And by that, we mean she had an ex-boyfriend.

Not that we ever get to hear her side of the story. By the end of act one, she still hasn't made an appearance.

We have met the ex though. And frankly, unless this baronial farm is in a great school catchment area, I'm not sure I agree with this mystery girl's life choices. Swaggering bloke in a bomber jacket who keeps hold of your love letters, or mopey farmer in an ill-fitting suit who squicks out at the thought of you having kissed someone else? I know which one I would have rather gone for.

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I go back out onto the terrace and find myself surrounded by my own set of ill-fitting suits, with not a bomber-jacket among them.

I decide to hang out with the zebra.

I now know why he isn't looking too happy. It's cold out here. I never thought I'd ever feel cold again. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Other than a deep and severe regret for leaving my jacket on my seat.

I settle for crossing my arms and shivering.

But I don't have much time to think about it, because the tannoy annoucements are already starting up.

"Ladies and gentlemen. The performance is about to commence. Please take your seats."

Well, all right then. If you insist.

As the audience begins to saunter back in, and the tannoy messages grow ever more desperate ("please take your seasts. The performance will resume in three minutes. Two minutes. One minute”) I begin to worry about the staff here. Corralling opera audiences is a high-stress occupation. No wonder the box office lady prefers to sight of her screen. Screens don't scowl or moan or dither or elbow.

My sneezing neighbour wraps a great big pashmina around her shoulders, sticking her elbows into my ribs in the process.

She doesn't seem to notice.

Nor does she pause when she flaps her arms about, choking me with her pashmina as she sets about getting comfortable in her seat.

I don't know what it is with women getting all elbowy once they put on a shawl. It's like they think the excess fabric increases their wingspan or something.

I decide the brave the cold. Make the most of it while it lasts.

The conductor is back. We do the whole applause thing again.

And here it is. Act two. And there's the thot (as the kids say…) Finally. In red dress and heels, because of course she is. She peels her dress away from her shoulders as she stands with her back to us. And never says a word before she is engulfed in a grey housecoat and becomes one with the chorus.

Honestly, the most interesting character in this whole damn story. And we don't get a single note out of her. We get an entire song from the “innocent” (I think this is a euphemism for having special educational needs) whose presence has no relevance to the direction of the plot. But the catalyst of this entire story? Nope. It's not like she would have an interesting spin on the situation...

Seriously, fuck the patriarchy.

As the story darkens, so does the sky outside the tent. The wind picks off, blustering against the sail-like side of the tent.

And just as I'm seriously regretting not getting all eagle-winged with a shawl of my own, it's over.

The cast all bang their heels on the stage in appreciation as the principals come out for their curtain calls. The rest of us settle for just clapping.

House lights go up, and it's time to leave.

Except, there's one more tannoy announcement to see us off.

"All the entrances to the north side of the park are now closed," says the sophisticated man. "In consideration of our neighbours, we ask you to leave the park as quietly as possible."

Amongst a loudly chattering crowd, I retrace my steps down the long avenue, to the south side of the park.

It's only when I'm half-way back to the tube station that I realise I could walk back to Hammersmith from here. Gawd, it's weird staying somewhere walkable. I can't get over the idea of actually living somewhere within walking distances of places.

Oh well.

Maybe next time.

A few days later (yes, I'm behind on writing these things... hush you, I've had a really intense week at work) Opera Holland Park get back to me, offering me a press ticket to that night's performance. Honestly, I really need to sit down and get my spreadsheet sorted. And next year, I need to get on that rush thing. And remember to take my antihistamines…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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, fixung my eyes on the intricate mouldings 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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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?

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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).

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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.

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