My mad existence

I'm on my way to the next venue and I just saw a duck! Two of them! Waddling around next to the water, being all duck-like.

I didn't have any bread to give them, but they let me take a photo of them all the same and didn't seem to mind that I used went all baby-talk on them.


So, I'm happy now. For some reason, knowing intellectually that my theatre for the evening was in the middle of Regent's Park, didn't connect with the part of my brain that knows that ducks live in parks, and the whole duck thing totally surprised me.

In a good way.

I'm very happy.

I also just spotted a sign, stuck in a hedge, pointing the way to the Open Air Theatre, so on top of being duck-happy, I'm also not lost.

This trip literally cannot get any better.

I follow the signs, leading down paths and past flowerbeds and across roads, until I spot it. The theatre. Or at least, the entrance to the theatre. Kinda getting fairground vibes looking at it, if I'm being honest.

The box office is in a sort of wooden cabin-like structure on one side, with the entrance on the other, with the name lined up along the roof.

The grass is full of smug-looking people having smug-looking picnics and drinking smug-looking glasses of wine. Near me a woman throws her head back to laugh. Smugly.

Just need to take my photo of the outside then it's off to try and blag a paper ticket off the box office. There wasn't an option to get one from the website. I think I left it too late or something. I have a crumby e-ticket sitting in my inbox and I am not happy about it.

"Lot of people here?" says a bloke standing near me.

I glance up.

"Yeah? I guess. It's very popular."

I go back to my phone, bringing up the camera app.

"Are you Mediterranean?" he asks.

I'm so confused by this question, I look up again. "... no?"

"You look a bit Italian. Are you Italian?"

Now, I'm sure you will agree with me that I do not look Italian. I very much do not look Italian. Literally no one in the world has ever, up until this point, thought that I looked anything approaching Italian.

I've gone through my whole life being British-passing, and I'm not about to take this nonsense. "Not even slightly," I say, in my coldest, bitchiest, tones, that I only bring out on very special occasions.

Turns out, however, that this bloke is immune to my lack of charm. "No?"

"No. I'm Scottish."

I mean... I'm not Scottish. Okay, I'm slightly Scottish. My surname is Scottish. But there's a good hundred years between the last Scottish Smiles in my ancestry coming down to live in Liverpool or somewhere, and me being born. Usually, when people ask I'll say German, or Austrian, or something, but those answers are all way too Holocausty for a summer evening. And I don't like pulling out the Israeli-angle with weirdo-strangers who are way too intent on making conversation.

"The Scottish are very friendly people. Very friendly," he continues.


Now, Scotland is fucking great. And Scottish people are even greaterer. I would totes vote for Nicola Sturgeon to be prime minister if that was ever an option. All hail the Scots. But like, I lived there for three years, and "friendly" would not be my go-to descriptor. Like... there were pubs I was actively told not to go to because my English-accent would be considered a "provocation."

"Very friendly."

"... sometimes?"

"Very friendly people."

Okay. Enough of this. Apologies to the Scottish people but I need to disabuse this man of your friendliness before he starts telling me his whole backsto-

"I'm from Iran."

Shit. Too late.

"Sorry," I say, putting away my phone. "I have to go in now."

And without another word, I scuttle over to the entrance and join the queue.

"Can I check your bag?" asks the bag checker.

Of course she can. I grab it and open it for her. Or at least, I try to open it for her. The damn zip is stick.

Shit. "Shit." Double shit. "Sorry."

She laughs. "Don't worry. As long as we can look inside."

I've made a tiny gap. I can see the soft black material of my scarf pocking through, caught in the metal. "It's my stupid scarf," I tell her, still trying to unjam the zip.

"Don't worry," she says again. "It happens all the time."

She peers through the inch-wide gap I've created and then feels her way down the outside, giving my bag a good massage.

With a wave of her hand, I'm sent over to the ticket checker.

With all the excitement, I'd forgotten to go to box office.

I look over my shoulder. I can't go back now. Not after making the bag checker go through all that. She'll think I'm a right old idiot.

I get my phone out, and allow my e-ticket to be beeped.


Still feeling mad at myself, I pass through the entrance, and stop.

Well. This sure is something, A bar sits beneath by an ivy covered canopy on one side. Lawns are littered with picnicing couples on the other.


And in the middle, a merch stand.

I join the queue.

It isn't much of a queue. There's only one lady in front of me. But she is making the most of it, asking questions about every single aspect of the theatre and the performance. Start times and entrances and intervals and... Ooof. I can't listen anymore.

I turn my attention to the stand.

I love theatre merch. But so much of it is crap.

I'll throw down a tenner on a programme if I have to, but see-through t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with some tedious quote from the show ain't getting my coin any time soon.

This stuff, well... someone at this theatre sat down and thought: What does a person watching a play out in the open air need? And then set about selling it to us.

Alongside the programmes, there are branded baseball caps and water bottles, and plastic ponchos. Standard. But then there's also recycled wool blankets for cold knees, and straw panamas to cover bald heads and cuddly hedgehogs to...

Wait, what?

"The Regent's Park Hedgehog," reads a sign, posted on the side of the cart as if to answer my exact question. Turns out the park has hedgehogs in it. Real ones. 40 of them. Which doesn't sound a lot.

I love hedgehogs. Everyone loves hedgehogs.

I really want a cuddly one.

Can I justify it?


"Can I get a programme please?" I ask the merch desker as the old lady finishes her ream of questions and moves on.

My eyes slide over to the hedgehogs.

They are so frickin' cute.

"Of course!" says the merch desker. "Five pounds please."

I pull my bag forward and suddenly remember the zip. Shit. "Sorry," I apologise as I struggle with it.

"Don't worry," she says.

I give the zip a good tug. It slides a half-inch. Ha. We're getting somewhere.

"Stupid scarf," I mutter as I fight the zip.

"No rush," she says sweetly. "It happens all the time. Especially after the bag checks. Is that cash or card?"

"Err, cash?" I say.


"Or card? If that's easier?"

"No, don't worry. I just thought I could set up the card machine."

With one more violent yank, I hear the sound of my scarf ripping, and the zip gives way.

I pull out my purse and hand her a fiver. "There," I say, triumphantly. "Exact change. My punishment for being annoying."

She laughs politely. "Thanks. I can always do with more fivers."

With one final glance towards the hedgehogs, I scuttle off with my programme to see how bad a hit my scarf took tonight.

There's a huge banked flowerbed running along the path, with a low bench around it.

I find an empty spot and examine the damage.

The scarf is still caught in the zipper. I try to wriggle it out, but it's no good. It's stuck right in there.

Gritting my teeth, I wrap the fabric around my hand and yank it free, wincing as it tears away.

Gawd dammit. This is why I cannot have nice things. It was a present too. Fuck's sake.


I stuff it down to the bottom of my bag, where it can't get into any mischief, and look around in the hopes of distracting myself from what I've done.

This place looks like a faerie bower after an all night rave.

Long streamers hang limply off tree branches, looking more than a little like this place was bog-roll-bombed by trick-or-treaters.

Dirty confetti is trodden into the ground.

I don't envy the cleanup crew at the end of the summer.

The group sitting next to me on the bench suddenly leap to their feet and rush over to the now-open doors.

I watch them go, wondering vaguely if I should be rushing too.

I decide to take a more leisurely approach, double-checking my e-ticket to make sure I'm using the right entrance.

“Enter by: Gangway 1,” it says. There's a huge number 1 stuck on the wall next to the doors right on the end. That must be it.

I go in.

Down on one side is a small patch of grass, and the runners are all crowding together trying to find the best spots. As close to the stage as possible.

I turn the other way, heading for the huge bank of seating. I start climbing, and climbing, and climbing. Right to the top. Because I'm cheap.

Not that it's a bad view from up here. The stage is massive. With a fuck-off huge letters at the back spelling out: EVITA. Behind them, I can just about make out the band.

Two ladies sitting in the row in front are taking a selfie. Or at least, they're trying to take a selfie.

"I can't get the sign in," says one.

As if driven to prove that I am, on occasion, a nice person, I offer to help.

They hand me the phone and I try to line up the shot, with the sign behind them, politely neglecting to mention that I am a terrible photographer.

"How shall we do this?" asks one.

"Shall we go down this way?" I say, moving down the row to a more central location. "If you could stand here..." I point to where I want them, and yes. That works. Two landscape. Two portrait. Boom. Done.

"Ooo, a professional..." says one as she takes the phone back.

She's clearly never seen my blog.

That done, she gets on with the really important matter at hand. Coating herself with bug spray.

Not something the merch desk has thought to sell. They should really consider it.

"Apologies," she says, turning around to explain herself to our row. "I just sprayed bug repellent."

Her friend laughs at her and she gets flustered.

"In case I smell!" she says, making her friend laugh even more. "I swell! I have to be hospitalised."

"Don't worry," I assure her. "We're all on your side."

A bell rings outside. Well, I say outside. It's all outside here.

Let's try that again.

Beyond the walls, a bell tolls, calling in the followers of musical theatre.


They pour in, heavy from their picnics, heaving themselves up the steps to their seats.

High above us, black coated figures snuggle down in covered crow's nests with their spotlights.

I shudder as a drop of rain lands on my cheek. I look up. The sky looks dangerously cloudy. I send up a quick prayer to the theatre gods that we won't have a downpour. They seem to listen. The rain stops.

The show starts, and you know, it's Evita. So it's all big and dramatic and...

There are smoke guns going off and I have to hold my breathe as the white curls pour over me, and then there's confetti blasting all over the place. And holy shit this is epic. You know a show's going to be good when they start it with the confetti shower. That's a hell of a promise to live up to and: Bang! Fuck yeah. There are streamers. I repeat: there are streamers. Flying through the air like gentle doves bringing messages of destruction.

And miracle of miracles, one is floating towards me, sailing on a breeze, sent by the theatre gods.

It drifts down, drapping itself over my shoulder and then my lap, like I've just been awarded the sash for Miss Open Air Theatre 2019.

Then it moves.

Sliding across my body.

I look up.

A woman in the row in front has the end in her hand and she's winding it around her arm, pulling it off me.

I consider grabbing the other end and tugging it away from her (it's my streamer, dammit!), but I'm too shocked to move. I watch as she crunches the paper streamer into a ball, and hands it to the man she's with, who crushes it in his big, fat, hands.

And then it's the interval.

He turns around in his seat, reaching over to grab his bag, he stuffs the crumbled streamer inside.

I hope it gets stuck in the zip.


The audience stumbles off to finish their bottles of wine, but my row doesn't seem up for moving. So we stay in our seats.

Down at the bottom I spot an usher picking up streamers off the path, and I look at them longingly.

I don't know why I love this crap as much as I do. It just makes my little hoarder heart so happy.

Or it would have done, anyway.

As the bell rings once more, people come back clutching rolled up blankets and hot drinks.

It's chilly now. I roll down the sleeves of my jacket and retrieve my scarf from the bottom of my bag.


My neighbour is trying to explain the history of Evita to his friend.

"Didn't she get murdered?" asks the friend.

"No..." He tells her what really happened.

"Oh," she says, sounding disappointed. "That's anticlimactic."

But as the second act canters on, I hear a sniff coming from my right. It's the friend. She is full out crying. Big, choking sobs.

The wind picks up, and spent confetti swirls around above our heads.

The crying girl makes a grab for a piece, but it is whisked away from her hand.

The cast get a standing ovation at the end. I don't join in. They were excellent, but you know how mean I am with my ovations. Five a year. That's the limit.

It takes a long time to get out. I cross my arms and shiver in my jacket as the lower rows file out, painfully slow.

The park is black when we do manage to escape. Signs are set out giving instructions on how to get out of here. I just follow everyone else. A long march on the way to Baker Street.

Ahead of me, I spot the streamer-stealer.

She laughs at something her partner says.

I have never hated anyone so much in my entire life.

I can only hope that she at least gives the streamer a good home.

I trudge on, feeling a weight of sadness pressing down on my shoulders.

I knew I should have bought a hedgehog.


Wash Out

Eight months into the marathon, and I think you know me well enough to sense that I'm a bit of a daredevil. A thrill-seeker. A speed junky. Always chasing that next high.

So on a Friday night, as the clouds darken and the rain begins to pour, there's only one place I could be heading.

Yup. I'm off to catch for some free outdoor theatre.

Yeah, it's risky. I know. But don't worry. I've checked their Twitter feed and there's no mention of it being called off. And with a six o'clock start, there's still time to run over to a different theatre and catch another show if it does get rained out.

There is the tricky matter of what to wear, but as I'm currently living out of a suitcase, and don't own any waterproofs anyway, I just make sure I've got my scarf in my bag and head off to London Bridge.

On the short walk from the station, umbrellas pop open all around me, but I refuse to give in. I march on, striding between the raindrops and resolutely deciding not to put up my own umbrella.

It's just rain. It's fine. The only thing I have to lose is my eyeliner.

Still, it's not without trepidation that I approach The Scoop.

And not just because everyone seems to be scurrying away in the other direction.

A low stone wall is quarantined behind crowd-control railings. Their only purpose seemingly to stop people from peering down into the stage from above. All I can see is a lighting rig, peeking up from inside the well like a submarine's periscope.


As I walk around, following the path that leads to the bulbous glass shape of City Hall, I finally manage to catch a glimpse of what's happening.

Which is to say: nothing.

Rows and rows of empty seats. Wet and empty seats.

Wide stone steps, circling the floor-level stage, are filled with nothing but the slick sheen of rain.

I press on, walking round towards the entrance.

Two security guards stand around wearing hi-vis jackets. They don't pay me any mind as I walk past.

A woman in a waterproof does. She smiles as I approach, looking damp but resolute.

"Is the performance still going ahead?" I ask, a touch sceptically.

It's a couple of minutes to six. If it's happening, it's has to be soon.

"It is," she says, sounding very stoic about the whole thing.

I am filled with admiration. You have to applaud theatre people. They are the ancestors of those epic posties of old. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these stage managers from putting on a fucking play.

"Oh, you brave souls," I say, really meaning it.

"There's a marquee that you can sit under if you do decide to see it. It's not strictly for the audience, but there are only five people here so..." She lets the sentence trail away.

"I'm going to go for the marquee then," I say, and I do.

I walk around the back of the seating, past a small wooden shed, and find the promised marquee. Underneath there's a tech desk, being kept nice and dry, a small group of people huddling around it, and a dog.

I duck my head under the marquee and find an empty spot.

A gust of wind sneaks in, picking up my skirt just as I'm trying to sit down, and wafting it over the sleeping dog. They lift their head and look at me through half-closed eyes.

"Sorry," I apologise to the dog's owner. "I'll try and keep a hold of my skirt away from him... her? Him? ... her?"

The owner looks at me from under her umbrella. "It doesn't matter," she says before turning away.

Well, alright then.


The dog isn't bothered by either my skirt or my misgendering and they promptly go back to sleep.

A second later, someone arrives with a rolled-up blanket, and the owner carefully tucks the dog in.

The dog sighs contentedly.

They look super comfy.

The rest of us shiver as we wait for the show to start.

A young woman races down the steps towards the stage. We're off! The Sea Queen, a very appropriate title for the weather, as the pirates slop their way across the wet stage.

It's pretty cute. There are songs. And swords. And a girl pirate who don't take no nonsense from any boys.

They're all miced up, but even so, it's hard to hear over the patter of the rain on the roof of the marquee. I strain to make out the lyrics and then, as a cast member darts off to the left, I realise I don't have to. Because there's a captioning screen right there. It's got all the words, and I hadn't even noticed it. So, I can read along the bits I miss.

I'm very happy right now. Even if it's freezing.

As the pirates' shirts grow sodden I scramble about in my bag for a scarf.

More people arrive. A cool looking girl stands on the steps to watch from beneath the shadow of a huge umbrella. People walking past stop to look over the wall. A family appear and the two small girls squirrel themselves under the marquee, sitting close to the dog - but not too close.

But the rain doesn't stop. Puddles begin to form on the stage.

As the actors race about, swashbuckling about with swords, the stage manager comes out. She raises her hand and the battle stops, mid-swash.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she calls out. "Apologies to those that have just arrived, and those in the audience sheltering," she says, indicating our group under the marquee. "We’re just going to pause-"

"-the pivotal moment!" says the girl pirate, earning herself a giggle.

"Pause for health and safety reasons," continues the stage manager. "We're just going to check in with one another."

"We won't tell who wins!" says pirate girl.

"Shame!" calls back one of the marqueers.


The cast all creep their way damply off stage and go to hide behind the set.

The rain continues to pour down onto the marquee, weighing down the roof until a huge flood splashes off and makes us all jump.

Underneath, a gentle camaraderie forms between the marqueers.

A couple gets chatting with the lady at the tech desk. She's the captioner. She was supposed to be doing the show on Wednesday, but it got rescheduled. Because of the rain.

They ask if she's a student and are surprised to learn that no, it's her actual job. Then they ask about the actors, and are again shocked to find out that they've all graduated and are now bona fide working actors.

We wait. This rain really isn't letting up.


I blearily stare at all the office blocks rising above the edge of The Scoop. Odd view. Considering we have the river right behind us. You'd think they'd want Tower Bridge as a backdrop.

Perhaps I should go. Not because I'm damp and cold. I am damp and cold, but the actors must be damper and colder, and I do wonder whether they would feel more comfortable leaving if, well, we weren't here.

"Looks like they're stopping," says someone nodding towards the stage. A couple of actors scuttle out from behind it. They're in costume. But not the pirate costumes from before. They're in doublets. Fancy doublets. With frogging. Not really suitable wear for the high seas. These look altogether more Shakespearian fare.

The family decide to call it quits.

"Thank you for coming," says the captioner. "Sorry we couldn't do anything about the weather."

"Oh, are you in control?" asks the dad.

"Yeah," says the captioner with a sigh. "Sorry."

They say goodbye to everyone and make their way out into the rain.

The rest of us cross our arms and wait for news.

The stage manager reappears.

It isn't looking good.

"Ladies and gents," she starts. "Thank you so much for your patience. That took a little longer than expected. We're going to have to cancel this show, just because the floor is a bit slippy. But the forecast is looking good for later and we're still going ahead with Twelfth Night and we'd love for you to stay and see our beautiful production on the same set. It starts at eight, so don't go too far, go get a drink something warm to eat, and well see you later."

And she's off. Presumably to find a drink and something warm to eat for herself.


More cast members appear. One of them is wearing a massive dress. So massive she needs help keeping the skirts up away from the ground. It's pale cream. Can't be having that dragging only on the damp concrete.

They wave at us as they make their way around the seats, stopping to clap in our direction as they draw near.

We applaud right back.

Not all heroes wear capes. But they frequently wear big arse-dresses and ruffs.

Time to go.

I pull my jacket tight around me and emerge from the marquee.

It's not so bad now that I'm not sitting on a cold stone step.

As I clamber back up the steps, the rain stops. The sky clears.

People start to emerge from the cafes and pubs they'd been hiding in.

I decide to walk to Embankment. Take in the river.

I won't be coming back for the second show. I've already seen two Twelfth Nights this year. I'm sure the cast with cope with my absence. They're made of strong stuff.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…