Six impossible things before breakfast

“Ooo,” cooed an old woman as she walked past me. “It’s a real boys’ club in there tonight.”

I followed her gaze through the bank of glass doors and into the theatre foyer, slightly surprised. Not just because theatre audiences are notoriously dominated by women, but because I was there for a play about the women chain makers of Cradley Heath, with a cast composed of two-thirds women, and called Rouse, Ye Women!. Somehow, I didn’t expect a massive male turn-out.

But there they were.

Two men.

Waiting at the box office to collect their tickets.

Blimey. I wonder what it’s like at the Greenwich Theatre on a less testosterone-fuelled evening.

Still, she didn’t seem unhappy about the development.

“Squeaky door,” she giggled as she pushed her way in. The door squeaked obligingly.

I followed behind, getting my own set of squeaks as I squeezed myself through the heavy door.

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I was a little bit early. After my run across the city (well, at least the well-posh portion of it) on Monday, I was determined to take it easy. Public transport all the way - starting with the tube and ending with the DLR. Not quite a door-to-door service, but I think calling an Uber for the last quarter-of-a-mile might have been a little extreme, so we can forgive the short walk I put myself through at the end.

The men were gone by the time I got to the box office, so without the ability to properly inspect such a transcendental phenomonen, I was left looking at my ticket. Brown and purple. Not a colour combination that you get to see that often.

There was a lot of it at the Greenwich Theatre though.

The squeaky doors were purple. The floors were brown. Everything else was varying shades of beige.

It was not what I expected.

If I’d been the betting type I would have put money on something a bit more, well, nautical in flavour. It’s not every theatre that has the literal damn Cutty Sark sharing a postcode with them.

But perhaps that was a bit obvious. A touch gauche even.

As I contemplated my unsophisticated imagination the church bells tolled outside.

I checked the time.

7.11pm.

I was getting that sense of cognitive dissonance again. The world had gone all weird and lumpy. Brown and purple. Time had either stood still, or sped up. I couldn’t tell.

The door squeaked.

A cool looking woman wearing a scarf as a headband was stuck in the door, her shopping bag trapped outside. Someone rushed forward to help her. A few frantic squeaks later, she tumbled into the foyer like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

I checked the time again.

It was still 7.11pm.

Time to buy a programme.

“That’s one pound,” said the programme seller.

“Bargain,” I said, reaching for my wallet and dropping my ticket at the same time.

Too many things.

I hefted my bag further up my shoulder, stuffed my phone and charger into my pocket, retrieved the ticket, found a pound coin, handed it over, and took the programme.

Now what to do with that?

It was large. A4. Or rather than A3, folded in half (for my publications peeps, we’re talking a 4pp A4 with a half-fold, printed in full colour on satin finish 80gsm paper, if I’m any judge). What was I supposed to do with it?

I didn’t have any hands free. I’d be flapping around this programme all night if I didn’t find somewhere to put it.

“You can go through if you like,” said the programme seller.

I went through the doors, and made for the nearest flat surface. I needed to fix this mess.

I carefully slid the delicate programme in after it, careful not to get it caught on any stray keys or umbrella spokes.

Zipping back up my bag, I looked up and almost started laughing.

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There is was! Hidden away in the merchandise corner.

Greenwich was officially here. Lurking behind the ice-creams.

The bell rang. The house was open.

I gave my best Cheshire grin.

That was no normal theatre bell.

It was a ship’s bell.

Sharp and clear enough to bring this fuzzy world back into focus.

Up the stairs and into the theatre, I headed right to the front of the huge bank of seats. No brown or purple nonsense here. The upholstery was blue. And in between each seat: a flag. Red. The better for waving in front of charging bullies.

This isn’t the first time this year I found a flag on my seat. I’d been provided with a Union Jack at The Yard.

I eyed it suspiciously as I pulled off my coat and gloves.

For someone who loves theatre ephemera as much as I do, I should have been more excited. But I am an experienced theatre goer. I know what props left on seats mean.

Interaction. Immersion. All the terrible I words.

I sat down. Nudging the flag away from me with my elbow, as if denying its presence would prevent the inevitable.

Here’s the thing about the inevitable though. It always arrives eventually.

Half way through a rousing union song, our Mary Macarthur opened her arms invitingly. She wanted us to participate.

I thought perhaps this was done for effect. A welcoming to the invisible women she was speaking with to join her in song. You know, acting.

I was wrong.

All around me, voices lifted and harmonies layered in rich sound.

“We are the union, the workers bound as one…”

Wait, what? I looked around me, amazed.

“We have the strength of unity, and victories can be won…”

Mary Macarthur stepped off the stage, picking up her skirts as she made her way into the audience to rouse us all.

“Together we are stronger, our voices have more power...”

How did these people know the words? Was this some famous union song? Was I on the brink of being kicked out for not being socialist enough to participate?

“And joined in a trade union, we’re sure to win the hour."

Is this something people do? Jump into a song half way through, knowing the chorus well enough to sing along? Is that just a regular thing that regular people can do? Or is Greenwich stuffed full of lyrical savants?

I mean… it’s well established that I have all the musical skills of a badger, but I’m still shocked by this.

“But Maxine,” you say with a heavy sigh. “Of course this is normal. Just look at all those Americans learning their own history through the medium of Lin-Manuel Miranda. People remember things if you put a beat to it. Even you did. Look. You literally just wrote the lyrics down.”

To which I say: yes. I did. But I copied them out of the programme. A programme which no one was reading during the sing-a-long.

And as for Hamilton. I have probably bopped around to that cast recording, Oooo… three hundred times, maybe. And I’ve seen it live. Twice. If it came down to it, life-or-death situation styley - I could probably rap along to a fair chunk of it.

But not during a first listen.

Not half-way through the damn song.

The music ended. The sole male-actor came forward. “We’ll now take an interval of fifteen minutes. Just wait for the house lights. There they are. See you in fifteen minutes.”

That should have been my cue to make a run for it. To escape. We'd only made it through act one and we were already singing. Act two could only get worse. And we still hadn’t even touched the flags.

I stayed in my seat, unable to move. I was, as the Tumblr kids say, shook.

I was right. There was more singing. And clapping along. And a fair bit of flag waving.

Mary Macarthur even whipped her programme around in lieu of a manifesto. The edges were torn and rumpled.

I nodded to myself. I was right to put my programme away so carefully. This is what happens when you just shove it in your bag with no concern for the delicate nature of the paper stock.

As the show closed, the man stepped forward again.

There was going to be a Q&A.

Before I could even reach under my seat to make a grab for my coat, the guest speaker was already on the stage. I couldn’t leave. I was in the front row. There was no getting out.

She was going to give a short talk first. There was a sheaf of paper in her hands.

Too much paper. Too many pages.

And then… okay, that was an interesting bit about Mary Macarthur. And that was good too. And wow… shit. She was one cool lady.

“I have a comment, then a question.”

Here we go.

The man stood up. “I just wanted to show you all my t-shirt. I didn’t know I was coming to see this show until 6pm, but perhaps, somehow, I did…” He was wearing a union t-shirt. With an image Rosie the Riveter. We all clapped in appreciation.

“Sorry,” said another man. “Can I just say  that if you’ve enjoyed this play, you might enjoy another play taking place just down the road…”

The ballsiness of this move was lost on me in the moment. I was too busy letting out scream of internal swear words. Shitshitbloodybastardbloodyshit. The play wasn’t in a theatre. Not a proper, dedicated-use theatre. It was a pop-up.

And it wasn't on my list. 

I quickly made a note of it on my phone.

“It runs until the 30th,” he finished before sitting down.

Eleven days to get there. Short notice. But doable. If you ignore the fact it’s February. I put away my phone.

Another man raised his hand.

And another.

And another.

The old woman had been right. It really was a boys’ club in there that night.

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Cold beans and etiquettes

Can I start out by being a bit sentimental here? Just briefly. It won’t take long, I promise.

I just wanted to say thank you to, well… you. And to all the others who have been reading along as I crash around London watching far too much theatre. Knowing that there are hundreds (and hundreds!) of people out there, rolling their eyes at my exploits, makes seeing eight shows a week that bit easier.

Yes, eight shows.

With a double-show day on Friday, I could by rights have taken Sunday off. Taken it easy. Caught up on some much needed sleep. But no.

A few days back I recalculated the number of theatres I need to get to before the clock chimes midnight on New Year’s Eve. And unfortunately it went up, rather than down. I added all the venues in the Vaults Festival, the studio of the Little Angel (missed that one, oops), a few newly announced site-specific spots, and ended up with a figure of 251.

Still doable. Just about.

Don’t worry, I’m not giving up yet. But it will be a while before I allow myself the luxury of a weekend.

Not that I’m trying to guilt you into coming back, but… don’t leave me alone here. I need you to hold my hand, and like… maybe, if it’s not too much to ask, perhaps also stroke my hair and tell me I’m pretty. This is hard work. I’m just after a bit of validation.

With all that in mind, I put on my most vibrant red lipstick and headed over to The Pleasance for the 5.30pm performance of In Lipstick.

This wasn’t part of some suggested dress code, in case you were wondering, but I figured I might as well get into the spirit of the thing.

It has just occurred to me that The Pleasance is my first proper north London theatre. Which, as a north Londoner myself, is pretty exciting. That, combined with a 5.30pm start and a 90-minute, no interval, show, meant that I would be back home in time to make a proper dinner. Now that was really was exciting. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a proper, hot dinner.

These are probably the wrong type of thoughts to have when going to watch a play.

Especially a play which features a picnic. Doubly especially when the picnic is packed full of M&S goodies.

Conventional wisdom goes that one should never go food shopping on an empty stomach.

The same can be said about going to the theatre.

There’s nothing worse than watching an actor joyfully chow down on a mini pork pie when you’re hungry.

I could easily have clambered over the three rows in front of me and hoovered up the entire spread laid out on stage.

When I’m in charge of theatre, I’ll introduce and then enforce a rule that states that theatres need to start offering packed lunches with a sample of the foodstuffs that the actors are consuming. Nice food, obviously. In reasonable proportions. We don’t want a Cool Hand Luke situation going on in the stalls.

I anticipate some push back. Yeah, there’ll be some fuss about the noise. And possibly the smell. And I’m sure the cleaners won’t appreciate my new initiative, but I think if we pitch it as part of an immersive experience, it’ll get through even the most hardened members of the Theatre Etiquette Crew.

No? Not into it?

Okay, the lack of dinners may be focusing my thoughts in the wrong direction.

A cup of tea wouldn’t have gone amiss though. It was freezing in there. I had to use my scarf as a shawl and I was still shivering. Even then, I wrapped my arms so tight around me that when I got up to leave, my muscles had frozen into place and I feared I might be stuck like that forever - like a human pretzel.

Thankfully, the lack of heating was the only unpleasant thing about The Pleasance.

This is a theatre that knows how to appeal to me. It has great signage, a proper box office, a bar full of packed bookcases, and the signs for the loos actually say 'loos' rather than 'toilets,' which I think we can all agree is the nicer word.

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Even better than loos, they have playtexts to purchase in place of programmes.

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Now, I love me a programme. You already knew that. I’ve made no secret of it. But a playtext-programme? That’s next level excellence. Because 1) if the play is good, you get to relive the best bits on your tube journey home, or conversely 2) if the play is bad, you can check to see how far you are from the end and prepare yourself accordingly.

It also meant that I had something tangible to take away with me in lieu of a proper, papery, ticket.

I don’t know what I did wrong, but I managed to turn up with an e-ticket. Which meant that when I got to the box office, there wasn’t a real one waiting for me to pick up.

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“You can just use your phone.”

What? But I don’t want to use my phone! My phone sucks. It keeps on switching off and losing battery and is basically the scourge of my life right now. What am I even supposed to do with an e-ticket? I can’t store it in my ticket box, and I can't get warm fuzzies from looking at them. And I like warm fuzzies. The world needs more in the way of warm fuzzies.

I considered asking for a printed ticket anyway, but working box office is hard enough without the added problem of dealing with me and my obsessions. So, I let it go.

I didn’t take me long to regret that decision.

While everyone else heading into the auditorium was getting their lovely tickets torn, I was sent away, dismissed, and directed to another usher, to get my phone scanned and beeped. Ergh. As theatre experiences go, getting pulled out of a queue and being beeped lacks a certain romance.

I didn’t put on lipstick special just to be beeped, like a tin can of beans.

A cold tin of beans at that.

God, I need to stop thinking about food.

And seeing shows with so much of it, kept tantalizingly out of reach.

Sausage rolls. Macdonald’s chicken nuggets. Scotch eggs…

Hang on. I’m just going to stick a slice of bread in the toaster. Be back in a minute…

Right. That’s better. I’m properly carbed up now. And I’m also running late. Great. Let’s wrap up then. Both figuratively and literally, as it is friggin’ cold out there today.

I’ll be heading back to The Pleasance a couple of times to check out their other spaces, and I’m not even slightly upset about this. But… perhaps I’ll leave it for when it’s a bit warmer. And I’ll be sure to select 'care of box office' when booking my ticket.

Beep!