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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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.