It seems to be my destiny to always book theatre trips during big sporting events.
I just got off the tube at Oval, and apparently there’s a thing going on.
Half the roads are closed, and the other half are crowded by people who don’t seem to be doing very much. But whatever they are doing, they are doing with purpose. There’s a lot of looking around and nodding with emphasis at one another.
Who knew London had so much sport?
I’m early, so I trot past the theatre to the other side of the road, and have a stroll around The Oval. Now, I may not know a lot about sport, but even I know there’s probably some cricket going on in there right now.
It’s a funny old place, isn’t it? The Oval, I mean. You can see all the backs of people’s heads of the crowds sitting in the stands down from the pavement. They look so venerable sitting up there, the backs of their necks reddening in the sun. I hope they brought some sunscreen with them.
There’s a general wail of noise coming from inside. It’s utterly intelligible. A wall of pure noise reacting to whatever is happening down on the field (ha! I knew that one. Not a pitch. A field). Over the tannoy I can make out the voice of a commentator. From what I can tell, he’s saying words, but I don’t understand a single one of them.
Nope. Sport isn’t for me. Words are hard enough as it is without adding this whole new language to the mix.
I’m heading back to where it’s safer.
I loop my way back to the appropriately named Ovalhouse.
It’s very blue. Blue panes in the curved glass wall. Blue frames around the windows and the doors. An enormous blue sign tied to the side of the building, and sagging under the weight of its own massiveness.
Someone has been taking style tips from the Blue Elephant…
Inside, blue floors, and blue armchairs are added to the colour mix. There’s even a blue pillar stuck in the middle of this pleasingly oval-shaped foyer.
I may enjoy a touch of theme dressing, but I must bow before the master here. This is a level of commitment that I could never hope to replicate.
Doors lead off in all directions from this glass-walled oval, giving me intense hall-of-mirrors style dizziness. Thankfully, I don’t lose myself on my way to the box office window.
I complete the surname-in-exchange-for-ticket transaction, and then head over to the other side of the oval towards the cafe.
It’s nice in here. Quiet but not empty. There’s lots of rustic wooden tables giving off basement kitchen in Maida Vale vibes.
There’s a stage over on the far side, where I presume they have live music when it isn’t a quiet Wednesday night with a cricket match going on over the road.
I claim a table all to myself and have a look around.
There’s the door to the upstairs theatre, over by the bar. I won’t be visiting that one tonight, but I make a mental note of its location for my return.
I’m going to be in the downstairs theatre. The main space. At least I hope I am. Because I’m looking around and I can’t see it. Is it back in the mirror-maze like foyer? I don’t remember seeing a sign for it. Just the cafe, the box office, and the loos.
I could go back and check, but I’m comfy now. And besides, no one else looks like they’re in any rush to go anywhere. I might as well settle back and relax.
A few more people come in and take up the surrounding tables. Others head for the bar. But this is a hushed crowd. Or perhaps the better term would be: laid back. After spending last night having my pockets picked at the Aldwych, it feels nice just being sat here, by myself, and not being asked to buy something.
A young woman wearing a headset steps up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman,” she starts, and we all pull ourselves out of our daydreams to listen to her. “The doors are now open, over in the furthest corner of the bar.” She points the way into the next room, just beyond the bar.
Nice. I love it when an announcement comes with directions.
We stumble to our feet, gathering our things with the slow care of a hungover student attempting to clean their flat the morning after their first flat warming.
As one, we make our way into the next door. There’s a counter serving food on one side. And a door over in the far corner. Is that it? We all stop. The people at the head of our caravan turn around, eyes wide with confusion.
“Is that…?” one asks.
I’m thinking the same: is that?
There’s no sign. And no one there to check tickets.
But people are piling up behind us. There’s nowhere to go but forward. Onwards!
There’s a corridor through here. It doesn’t look very theatrey. If anything, it looks like the corridor outside a primary school classroom. I swear I see coats hung up on hooks as we press on.
Through another unlikely looking door, and there, thank goodness, is a ticket checker. He’s got one of those beeping machines to scan tickets so you know he’s legit.
That doesn’t explain the presence of the chalk board behind him.
“BRIAN. FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS,” it says, surrounded by tiny, fluttering hearts. The message, I’m sure, is connected to the show. The writing is too well done, the hearts too perfectly placed, to have been placed by anyone other than a theatrical. But the chalkboard? Does that always live here? I was kinda, but not really, joking about this corridor looking like a school earlier, but now I can’t shake the feeling that by day, this place plays host to a few hundred pre-teens intent on learning their ABCs.
I get my ticket beeped. Funny how I don’t mind the beeper when it’s a paper ticket on the receiving end of the beeping, and not my phone. Perhaps my reputation as a neo-luddite isn’t quite as deserved as everyone seems to think.
Into the auditorium, walking around the dark spaces formed by the bank of seats. The brick walls are painted black, but there are bright rectangles set amongst the gloom. I squint at them, trying to make them out. Lines of white, left by a thick brush, form the canvas to sharpie message of love. “YOUR LIFE MATTERS BRIAN,” one says. “KEEP SAFE BRIAN SEE YOU OX RIP XX,” reads another.
Around towards the stage and up the steps to find a seat. There are more messages to Brian up here. An outpouring of loving words, written on luggage labels and tried to the metal railings.
I want to stop and read them all, but I’m blocking the way. And besides, seats are unallocated and I better hurry up and pick one if I want to score my favoured place: third row, at the end.
The cast are already on stage. Moving in slow motion. Their faces twisted into grimaces of despair.
This is not going to be a happy evening.
I’m here for Custody. A new play about a young black man (I’m guessing the famous Brian here) who dies in police custody.
Well, I say play, but with all this slo-mo going on, I suspect there is going to be more than a little, what they call in the biz, “movement.” I might go as far as to say, “movement” tipping right the way into physical theatre.
Everyone in the audience keeps their heads down, struggling not to make eye contact with the performers and almost visibly flinching whenever they creep a peek and spot one of the cast looking their way.
Instead they focus on their flyers. Everyone has a flyer tonight.
That’s what people do when they’re aren’t any freesheets available. They grab a flyer.
See? It’s not just me that wants a memento. Any bit of print with the title of the show on it will be picked up by an audience member, given half a chance.
A man sitting in the row in front of me flicks at the side of his flyer, expecting it to open up to reveal more information inside.
I can’t blame him. As information goes, the flyer is a little lacking. Marketing blurb and dates of the run are all very nice, but when it comes to matters of who is actually standing on the stage in front of you looking like they’re just stepped on a very sharp thumbtack, they can’t compete with a freesheet.
It’s starting now.
Layered words as the cast form a Greek chorus of grief. Brian is dead. And no one is taking the blame.
Mother, brother, fiancé, sister. They tote around bags, clutched tight to their chests, hugged under arms, and slung over shoulders, a literal baggage that will only be laid to rest at the end.
Except, they don’t leave.
While the performers in You’re Dead, Mate left us stranded and alone, as we clapped in the dark, the cast of Custody stay with us, returning to vacate state. The lights come on. An usher crosses the stage in front of them to open the door. The cast are unseeing, as all they see is pain.
We look around at each other. Are we supposed to leave now?
I tentatively grab my jacket and slip it on.
I spot a few others doing the same.
Small groups get to their feet, unsure of themselves as they make their way to the exit.
No one wants to look at the cast as we file our way past them.
We leave them alone in their anguish.
It’s palpable. Hanging in the air. Heavy. Seeping off of the stage.
No wonder they move so slowly.
I would credit them, but… well, you already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Let’s do a thing. Let’s say it together. I would credit the cast but… 3…2…1… THERE ARE NO FUCKING FREESHEETS.
Ah. That was fun.
But seriously, there were no fucking freesheets.
“Feel free to write a message on your way out, if you'd like,” says the woman with the headset.
She indicates a small table in the foyer. “Please write a message to Brian,” says a small sign. There are luggage labels. And pens.
Someone is already jotting down her thoughts.
“What should I…?” she asks as she finishes.
“Just tie it up here,” comes the reply. There’s a string pinned up behind the table, waiting for the messages.
I move on. Words are hard.
The cricket must have finished now.
The tube is packed.
I head north, finally managing to get a seat around London Bridge.
Two men come and sit either side of me. They lean forward so as to continue their chat. Usually I would offer to switch. But I can’t move. I still feel the heaviness of the play pushing down on me.
“It's very busy,” says one, tacking in the still-busy carriage. “Something must be going on tonight. It’s almost Iike a Thursday.”