Three hours twenty minutes. THREE hours twenty minutes. Three HOURS and TWENTY minutes.
That’s way too long for a play.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done the whole endurance theatre thing. I’ve seen Angels in America (8 hours 45 minutes). I did most the Almeida’s Iliad (15 hours, but I gave up around 11pm because I didn’t want to nightbus it home). The Cursed Child (5 hours 15 minutes). Twice. And Gatz (8 hours). Twice.
So, you know - I can take a long running time.
But three hours and twenty minutes? That’s too fucking much. Way too long to be convinced that the playwright has a tight while on the narrative. And yet, not long enough to feel like you’re going on an epic journey with the peformers. Plus, a 7pm start time means I’m rushing from work, so I’m already exhausted before I’ve even stepped into the building.
Which is the National in this case, because, well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? I’m seeing Peter Gynt.
Almost exclusively for James McArdle reasons.
I love James McArdle. And his Scottish accent.
I saw him, sans-Scottish accent, in Angels, and Platonov, and he was… just heavenly.
If anything can keep me awake until twenty past ten tonight, it’s James McArdle.
I decide to avoid the main entrance and slip in via the external walkways. Anything to avoid all those staircases going up to the Olivier.
The main terrace jutting out of the side of the National is filled up with people communing with the flowerbeds. High above, I can see people leaning over the concrete sides of the balconies, dark shadows against the pale concrete, like birds hanging out on power lines.
I don’t hang out with them. I’ve got a ticket to collect.
I aim myself at the glass doors that will take me into the Olivier foyer. I pass two girls rehearsing a dance routine, using the dark windows as a mirror.
There’s a bit of a queue at the Olivier box office. There always is. No matter how early you turn up.
But it moves quickly, and soon its my turn.
I give my surname.
The box officer types it into her computer as I spell it out. Her eyes narrow. She’s not finding anything.
“I bought it through TodayTix if that makes a difference,” I say, suddenly realising that I might not even be in the system.
“Ah! Yes it does,” she says, moving away from the computer and grabbing a pile of tickets from the counter. “Maxine?”
She tears my ticket away from its TodayTix friends. “You’re in the circle,” she says as she hands it to me. “One level up.”
So up I go. It’s actually two levels to the circle. Or at least, two sets of staircases.
I’m really not fit enough for this nonsense.
I huff and puff my way up to the Olivier circle foyer, pausing at the top of the stairs as I get my breath back.
“Hello!” calls out the programme seller from behind her little trolley.
The programme trollies at the National always confuse me. They’re grey and industrial looking, and their ubiquitous presence in every foyer make me sad to look at them. But they’re full of ice cream, so… they’ve git that going for them.
The programme seller is slipping her stack of programmes. Inserting a small piece of paper into each one. There must be a cast change tonight.
“Can I get a programme?” I ask.
“That’s four pounds fifty.”
Blimey. Do you remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid? I remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid. I know some people mark their aging souls by the increasing youthfulness of policemen, but for me, it’s the price of programmes. They go up every damn year.
Still smarting from the cost, I get out my purse. Ah. Bit short on the whole change thing right now.
“Do you have change for a twenty?” I ask apologetically.
“Yes, I think so,” she says, checking her drawer. “But you’ll need to take a lot of pound coins. I hope that’s okay.”
Of course it’s okay. Pound coins are brilliant. They feel like proper money. Not like those measly five pence pieces which I lose as soon as I look at them. Pound coins are the best coins. Better than two pound coins even. I can never get enough of them.
“That’s fifteen pounds fifty in change,” she says, giving my two whole fivers and five pound coins alongside the fifty pee. This is literally the best change day I’ve ever had in my life. Fivers! Two of them! “You might want to count that,” she advises. But I trust her.
“And here’s your programme,” she says as I put my purse away. She touches the small white tongue of paper sticking out of the top of my programme. “There’s an indisposition tonight.”
Indisposition. What a quaint word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in this context. It’s usually ‘an injury’ in the dance world. And ‘cast illness’ in theatre. Indisposition makes it sound like some louche actor has been partaking of a touch too much opium and cannot remove himself from the chaise longue in time to get to the theatre.
With my programme in hand, I decide I need to head out onto the terrace to nurse my own tired head.
It’s nice out here. Not as nice as the grand terrace below. No flowerbeds to get friendly with, and no chairs either, unless you like perching on the low windowsills. But we’re high enough to get a breeze coming off the river and that’s pretty much all I want right now.
I’m enjoying it so much out here that I don’t even notice the bell that must have gone off inside, because the next time I turn around to look through the windows, the bar has cleared out and everyone has gone in.
I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder, hurrying inside.
The note on my ticket says I need to go to aisle four, which is on the left.
I show my ticket to the ticket checker on the door, but she’s not interested in that. Her eyes are pinned to my rucksack.
Shit. I’d forgotten about that. The National are super strict about the sizes of bags that go into the auditorium.
I’ve been carrying this bag for years, and it seems to be the exact right size to confuse the ticket checkers. Most of the time I get it in, but I have had more than one hurried sprint to the cloakroom when my pleading failed to melt the ticker checker’s heart.
She reaches out and grabs it, giving it a good feel. “Hmm, it’s quite empty, isn’t it? Furtherest aisle!” And with that, she lets me through.
I walk into the shadow-filled corridor, turning left and heading to the furthest door, as directed, patting my bag back into shape and trying not to feel violated.
I pull the heavy doors open and go in, taking a moment to stand up there, right at the back of the circle, to appreciate this aeroplane hangar of a space.
The Olivier is huge. Vast. If the National ever needed to raise funds, they could rent this space to Amazon to use as a central London warehouse.
I trot down the steps towards row D, peering as the seat numbers as I try to find the one that belongs to be.
A woman grabs her bag and jacket, removing it from the seat next to her and stuffing them behind her knees.
“Don’t worry, I’m here,” I say, pointing to the next seat along.
“No worries!” she says.
Even being so high off, and frankly, a little too far off to the side, the view is great. I can see all of that massive round stage, apart from a tiny clip in the corner. Plus, from here I can spy on what the band are up to.
Oh yes, there’s a band. A live band. For a play.
No expense spared here.
There’s a school group sitting behind me. or at least, I think they’re a school group. There’s defiantly a teacher amongst them “Now, the curtain is about to go up, so turn off your phones. Not on vibrate. Off. All the way off. And snacks away. I don’t want to hear your rustling.”
“The curtains are already up though,” comes the plaintive reply.
“There aren’t even curtains.”
That’s true. There aren’t even curtains.
“How do you know it’s about to start?” says one student
“It’s past 7pm. It was supposed to start at 7pm,” counters another.
The lights dim.
The band starts.
“Off,” orders the teacher over the sound of the music. “Now. Off, I said.”
May the theatre gods protect us from overzealous educators.
Just as the lovely James McArdle appears, someone starts making his way down our row.
“Sorry, excuse me,” he says he squeezes past someone.
He plonks himself in the seat next to me, and then leans in to whisper: “sorry, what seat number are you?”
“Err, sixty…?” Honestly I can’t remember. It’s a high number.
“Hang on,” I reach down to my bag to check, but it’s no good. I’d never be able to read my ticket in this low lighting. “I don’t think it matters,” I tell him. “No one’s going to move you.”
That seems to make sense to him. “I think I’ll just stay here.”
So he does. And thus settled we watch all one hour twenty minutes of the first act.
Peter Gynt is a weird play, isn’t it?
I didn’t really know the story. But I do know the Grieg music. Back when I was all of ten years old, I badgered my mum for weeks to by me a cassette tape of Peer Gynt. Which, now I say it, is probably the most revealing thing I’ve ever told you. Yes, I am that old. I yes, I was that much of a pretentious wank when I was ten years old. You thought that was a recent acquisition? Oh honey… no. If anything, I’ve mellowed.
Anyway, because of that, I knew there would be a hall. And a mountain king. But this is pure loopy-loo.
Logic was not issued with a staff pass when this production went into rehearsal.
As the house lights go up for the interval, my new neighbour leans over again. “Sorry to disturb you,” he apologises.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him.
“I think I’m actually meant to be in the seat on the other side of you.”
The seat on the other side of me is indeed empty, now that bag and jacket has been removed from it.
“There’s so many empty seats, I think you can sit anywhere.”
We look around the auditorium. There are a lot of empty seats. A lot of empty seats.
With one last glimpse, I go back out to the terrace for the interval. I need to stretch my legs. There’s a long way to go.
“It didn’t feel like one hour and twenty minutes,” says one of the students behind me when I return.
“It’s so good!”
“Everything is happening!”
“Yeah! It’s so good.”
Bless. I love young people. So enthusiastic.
I’m not sure the rest of the audience agrees. An already thin house is noticeably thinner. We’ve lost the entire row B down at this end. And there are patches all over the circle.
My neighbour with the coat and jacket hasn’t come back.
Things don’t get better after the second interval. My friend who couldn’t find his seat? Yeah, either he’s upgraded himself to the stalls, or he’s gone to catch a train home.
There’s only a few people left in my row, and we are all spread out like buttons on a shirt.
So we all take the only reasonable course of action. We lean back and lounge around, lolling over the arm rests in a way that we don’t have the opportunity to do all that often in the theatre, and we are making full use of the opportunity.
“That was brilliant!” says one of the students as the cast disappear after the applause. Presumably for a good lie down.
“Literally the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Not sure I can quite agree. Don’t think it’s even the best thing I’ve seen this week. Which is saying a lot as it’s only Monday.
Still, James McArdle though…