Miss Smiles in the library with the chaise longue

It isn’t often that you find yourself in a queue of people waiting to be let inside a library. Well, not outside finals week anyway. And that tends to involve a bit more crying and ProPlus jitters than this group displaying.

“This square’s a bit posh, isn’t it?” said Helen, dropping her voice by at least an octave as we entered the library.

That’s quite the statement from someone I literally met at the Royal Opera House.

I knew what she meant though. Walking over from work, and turning from the West End into Piccadilly is quite the shock. Streets widen, ceilings heighten, and walls whiten. It’s like stepping into a period drama. You can practically hear the rattle of carriage wheels making their way around St James’ Square.

“I wish I could have seen in back in Jane Austen’s day,” she continued in a whisper.

It’s amazing how even out-of-hours the papery-silence of a library’s atmosphere gets to you.

As if on cue, the line shifted forward, bringing into view the most extraordinary day-bed. Built on a scale suitable for giants, and upholstered in a whisky coloured leather, this seemed better suited to Byron’s hangover than Mrs Bennett’s vapour attacks, but I’m never one to pass up the opportunity presented by a fainting couch.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you on it?” asked Helen.

I pretended to consider this for a full half-second before dropping my bag and sinking myself into the squashy leather surface.

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Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. I need to get me one of these.

I wonder if the library would consider loaning it out to me. I’ll bring it back, I swear!

Photoshoot complete, we headed to the makeshift box office. Now, in theory I had an e-ticket, but if this marathon has taught me anything, it’s that one must always check in at the box office. You never know what you’re going to get. Like a miniature postcard with optical-illusion artwork printed on the front, and your seat numbers scrawled on the back, for instance.

“Oh my god, look at this!” I showed Helen, much to the amusement of the box office lady. “So cute!”

“You and your tickets,” laughed Helen.

Yeah, well, look. Everyone has their vices. Mine just happens to be paper-based-theatre-keepsakes. And I don’t think anyone going to see a play in a library is in any position to pass judgement on that. And the illustrated artwork is really cute. There’s no denying it. What with the little bats fluttering around, and the silhouette of Dracula himself cupping the chins of the two figures behind him.

I shouldn’t complain. Helen has gone with me to some weird spaces for the sake of my marathon: Libraries, barges, the New Wimbledon.

She also bought me a drink.

And a programme.

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The woman is such a fucking angel. Seriously.

Drinks, programmes, and pretty tickets acquired, we followed the signs up the stairs to the room that would be serving as our theatre for the evening.

“Is this the main reading room?” she asked as we dumped our coats and bags.  “Look, you’re not allowed to bring laptops in here.”

“It’s very old fashioned,” I explained, staring at my assigned seat and wondering how I was going to clamber up onto it. It was a tall chair. I am not tall. Nor am I adept at climbing. I can’t see one of these things without wholeheartedly believing that I will fall off and die if I attempt to sit on it.

What can I say? I have issues.

It’s okay though. We’re working through this. You and me. Together.

Yeah, sorry to dump that on you. But I’m giving you some quality content over here, the least you can do is provide me with some unpaid therapy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say anything. You just sit there and look pretty while I prattle on over here.

I flicked open the programme. God-lord, look at that formatting! Two-spaces after the full-stops! I thought that convention went out with the typewriter. This place really is old fashioned.

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Which is exactly what I want from a library. And even more what I want for a production of Dracula.

The set, such as it is, was simple. A chaise longue (much more reasonably proportioned than the leather monstrosity lurking downstairs), a ladder, a couple of projection screens and, of course… the library itself. With its staircase and walkway and window.

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“That bit in the window!” I gasped when the interval rolled around.

“The window, was amazing,” agreed Helen.

I don’t think I’ll get the image of the screen being rolled up to reveal the shadowy form of Van Helsing standing there, in the dark, peering in at us through the panes of the French window, for a long time.

“And the projections are great,” continued Helen.

“The projections are great.”

“The way they are integrated into the work.”

“Absolutely.” I paused. “Doesn’t he look like Matthew Ball?” I said, referring to The Royal Ballet principal.

“Oh my god, he does look like Matthew Ball.”

“It’s the eyes.”

“And the hair.”

“I like him.”

“Me too.”

“And not just because he looks like Matthew Ball.”

Helen looked at me skeptically.

“I like her too,” I said hurriedly. “She has the most gorgeously vintage face.”

“She does have a very vintage face.”

“They’re both great.”

“They are.”

I reached down for my bag in an attempt to hide my flusters.

“I’m just going to get a photo of that calendar,” I said, slipping off the chair and scuttling over to the wooden pillar which housed a set of date cards.

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This place is so, so old-fashioned.

I love it so hard.

Unfortunately, my little crush on both of the cast members only increased during the second act on the reappearance of the window.

The screen was whipped away. The window opened.

They began to climb out onto the roof.

I gasped. They couldn’t do that! It was raining! They weren’t even wearing coats!

When they reappeared I had to sit on my hands in an effort to stop myself from running after the pair of them with a warm scarf.

The sight of her skirt covered in rain droplets made my heart ache.

I wanted to bake biscuits for the pair of them.

You know I’ve got it bad when I want to bake for people. It’s the Jewish grandmother in me.

They were really cute though.

I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate to get a case of the warm fuzzies from a production of Dracula, but what can I say… it’s the Goth in me.

It was still raining when we left the library.

Somehow it’s less romantic when it’s you being rained on.

And don’t have anyone to bake biscuits for you.

On the Origin of Theatre

Nearly a week into the marathon, and I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground. I’ve visited a smattering of West End venues, watched a play in a fringe venue under a railway arch, and done… whatever the Bridge Theatre is (off-West End commercial? Retirement home for ex-NT artistic directors? Two-fingers up at anyone who ever doubted they could do it?). I felt it was time for something completely different. And as different options go, watching a play in the gargantuan monument to all things animal, vegetable, or mineral that is the Natural History Museum, is an appealing one.

I love the Natural History Museum. Mostly because, well… dinosaurs. But also the building itself is just such a joy to look at. There isn’t a square inch that doesn’t hold some architectural surprise for anyone willing to drag their eyes away from the exhibits for a moment.

I mean, look at this nonsense.

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And as I was there for a morning show, I had the opportunity to wander around before all the hoards of tourists had made there way out of their Airbnbs and into my way.

The theatre itself is located right inside the museum. When I asked for directions I was instructed to head to “the third arch, and it’s on the right.” I found it just after the Dino Store and before the Darwin Centre.

Once you’re in the correct arch, it’s hard to miss, as the doors have been laminated with enough blue and orange branding to scorch your eyeballs, after all the soft greys and softer browns of the stonework and skeletons located in the main hall.

At the box office they expressed surprise that I was only picking up just the one, solitary ticket. As if a woman old enough to have a theatre-going sproglet of her own, going to see a kids’ show at 11am on a Sunday morning, was at all an odd thing to do. I’m beginning to think that I should get some business cards printed up so that I can hand them over in by way of explanation of my strangeness in these situations. I mean… business cards that say londontheatremarathon.com on them. Not one declaring "following affidavits from the midwife and a doctor, I confirm that the bearer is, in all probability, human."

I put on my best intelligent face, hoping they’d think I was a post-grad student researching Darwin or something. I could be. I totally read his lesser known work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, while at uni. The fact that I seem to be reading mainly YA fantasy at the moment is besides the point.

Anyway, that expression of surprise wasn’t the last one I was going to get. It followed me to the programme seller. “You want a programme?!” he asked, as well he might as they were 7 quid and I didn’t see anyone else with one once I got inside the theatre.

But before I could make it in, it was my turn to get a shock.

The person on the door, after checking my ticket, asked me to present my hand and then with a gentle, and yet reassuringly firm, touch, pressed something onto my skin.

I’d been branded. With a stamp!

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Now, there’s nothing wrong with the stamp. Stamps are cool. And it’s a… turtle? I think? And, you know, I like turtles. Turtles are great.

But are they necessary?

Stamps I mean. Not turtles. I’m sure turtles are very necessary. As a metaphor for perverse in the face of overwhelming odds if nothing else. Oh wait, it was a tortoise in that race. Nevermind. Turtles are useless.

Unlike the neat little plastic disk system at The Union Theatre, these stamps don’t seem to serve much of a purpose, because the Jerwood Gallery at the National Bloody History Museum has tickets.

How the turtle stamp manages to prove the existence of a ticket better than the ticket itself, I’m not sure. Is a stamp better? I mean, other than being dinky. And cute. With it’s chubby swimming legs, and lovely rotund shell and…

Okay, I get it. Love the stamp. I am in total favour of the stamp.

And while we’re here, can we all take a moment to appreciate that I'm in the Natural History Museum wearing a sweatshirt covered in dinosaurs? This is some quality content that I'm offering you here. I just don't want it going unnoticed.

Wait, is this what I'm doing now? Dressing to theme? Am I going to wear a Viking helmet to the Royal Opera House? Winged sandals to the Apollo? Dress as a Christmas tree topper to Little Angel Theatre? As an old witch to the Aldwych? (Sorry). A ruff to Shakespeare's Globe? (I could actually do this... I totally own a ruff. Because of course I do). Okay, I'll stop now. I'm not going to do that. Still, it would have made going to the Red Hedgehog Theatre extra fun...

Where was I… right, in the Jerwood Gallery. Or the Jerwood Gallery Theatre. Not quite sure what this place is: a pop-up venue in a museum, or a more permanent fixture with more shows to follow. It looks like a pop-up venue. It feels like a pop-up venue. The seating is more suited to a secondary school assembly than a theatre. The stage is a literal black box that looks like it has been pushed into the vaulted gallery, like a kid pushing a chunky wooden cube into a play-set to help them learn shapes, or spatial awareness, or… I don’t actually know what they’re for. None of it gives the impression that it was built for the space in any meaningful way. Which makes me think that it will all be packed up, and the gallery restored to its former use, at some point in the very near future.

I don’t suppose there are that enough natural history-related plays floating about to fill a theatre into perpetuity. But then, perhaps it is a case of “build it and they will come.” I’d love to see a play about Mary Anning here (the dinosaur lady of Dorset). That would be frickin’ amazing.

Darwin’s great and all, but I doubt he could pull off a bonnet like Ms Anning.

In fact, The Wider Earth had a distinct lack of bonnets. Despite being set in the 1820s. It did have a hell of a lot of puppets though. Which seems to be the theme of my first week of this challenge. 3 of the 7 shows that I’ve been to this week have featured puppets. And not just puppets. Animal puppets. We had ensanguined sheep at Don Q, a spider on strings at A very very very dark matter, and an adorable iguana here at The Wider Earth. If only War Horse were still running, I could have gone for a fourfer.