The Old Curiosity Theatre

It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.

The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.

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As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.

"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.

"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.

"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."

I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.

"Just the one ticket was it?"

"Yup. All by myself."

Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.

A queue is forming on the stairs.

Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."

As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.

Space is tight at the Pentameters.

Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.

"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.

"You've been here before?"

I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.

"You're not a student are you?"

"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.

"Are you an actress or...?"

She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.

I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."

"Oh! What do you do?"

"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."

"We do all that ourselves here."

As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.

She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.

Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.

"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.

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"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.

Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.

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Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.

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The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.

Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.

It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.

A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.

He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.

"Can I get a programme," I ask him?

"Yup, they're a pound."

I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.

"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.

But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.

"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.

The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.

Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.

It's not worth a pound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.

But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.

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The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.

The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.

"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.

"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."

And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.

Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.

The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.

She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"

We all give it. Enthusiastically.

"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.

I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.

The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.

"Night," I say on my way out.

"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"

I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.

Who watches the watchmen?

Another 7pm start again. But this time, I’m feeling rather more positive about it. Mainly because my theatre for tonight is only down the road, which means that I get to stay at work for an extra half-hour. Oh. okay. Maybe I’m not on team 7 o’clock-start quite yet. Mad rush across London or staying late in the office isn’t that great a choice.

But I can’t blame the King’s Head for that. If anything I should be grateful that I only have to stroll down Upper Street to get to them. Won’t be able to do that much longer. They’re moving next year. That’s a lie. Not the bit about them moving, they’re doing that. The bit about me not being able to stroll there after work. They’re only going down the road. God, I rambling, aren’t I? Sorry. I’m so fucking tired right now. This weather… I’m really not doing well at the moment. Can’t sleep. Can’t think. Can’t breathe. And my poor hair… let’s not talk about my hair. It’s too distressing.

And the whole this is made worse by everyone else loving it so much. Soaking up the sun like lizards on rocks.

Look at them, sitting out there outside the pub, with their faces tipped up to the sun, and their drinks, and their smiles, and their happiness. Ergh. I hate them.

I better go inside. Where it’s dark and cool.

It’s been a while since my last visit here, so I’m very pleased to see the massive KING’S HEAD THEATRE sign up on the back wall, leading the way to the box office.

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It’s a funny old set up they have here. Not for them the laptop propped on the end of the bar, oh no.

Instead they build a kind of barricade between the theatre and the pub, and on top of this, they set up shop with money box and printed lists. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a pub theatre, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond these walls.

I give my name to one of the box officers on the barricade and get my name checked off the list.

He grabs a tiny scrap of paper and scrawls my seat number on it with biro.

“Let’s do you a nice bespoke, DIY ticket,” he says before handing it over.

“Well, that’s completely unforgable,” says some wag in the queue next to me.

Ah, bants. You gotta love it.

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I’m shocked. Not about the hand-made nature of the ticket. That’s very King’s Head, after all. No, it’s more the fact that I have a seat number at all that is surprising me. Now that I think about it, I vaguely remember selecting a seat while booking, but still… I think that’s a first on this marathon. A pub theatre that actually assigns seats.

“The doors will open soon,” he says, then looks behind him as the doors to the theatre start shifting from the inside. “Oh, they’re opening now!”

I’m not sure I want to be first through the door. That’s a level of keenness that I don’t want to be showing off. Not at the King’s Head.

I step back and tuck myself against a shelf and watch as other theatre-goers pick up their tickets.

“There we go,” says the box officer to the next person in line. “A nice bespoke, DIY ticket for you.”

Ah. If a line’s that good, it deserves repeating.

Time to go in.

The usher on the door takes the scrap of paper from me. “C11? That’s third row, either this side or the other, you’ll need to check. They keep on switching them over.”

I don’t get the scrap of paper back.

I’m on my own.

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C11. C11. C11. C11. C11.

I repeat it again and again so I don’t forget. In my head, of course. Just to be clear. I’m not that weird.

I head for the furthest aisle and start checking the seat numbers. They’re written on tiny little plaques screwed to the backrest of the benches. And I saw written, because that’s what they are. Not printed. They look like they’ve been scratched out and rewritten a hundred times over.

You got to love it, don’t you?

I hope they bring these battered badges with them to the new venue. I can’t wait to hear what the swanks in Islington Square head office have to say when they hear about it.

C11, as it turns out, is in the last block of seats. In the third row.

That was pretty easy to find. After all, I can count all the way to a hundred. And I know my alphabet. Sort of. (I get a big confused around the Qs and Ss, but I can run through it pretty snappy if I remember what the tune is).

I don’t mean to sound smug. But the other audience members seem to be having a bit of a problem.

“Do you know what row you’re in?” a lady asks me.

“Yes, row C. It’s written here,” I say tapping the badge on the back of my seat.

“Oh.” She doesn’t sound convinced. She looks about her, turns, and then leaves.

Perhaps I should have offered to sing her the Alphabet song.

The ticket checker rushes over to the front row. “Sorry Sir,” she says, waving at a man squeezing himself into the front row. “You’re over here.” She points to a spot over in my block. In the second row.

“Ah! I thought you meant over here,” he says, the invisible light bulb above his head lighting up, and he makes his way over to the correct seat.

The lady who asked me about my row is back, still looking lost.

The usher tries to help. Pointing her to the seats just behind me.

“Is that row C?” she asks.

“D,” says the usher. “You’re just in here.”

“Where?”

The usher points again. “Just here. The three seats right at the end.”

“But we’re not all together.”

“No, one of you is in row C.”

“C?”

“Yes, this row,” she says, pointing at the row I’m sitting in.

“That’s D?”

“No. C.”

“C?”

“Yes.”

“And one of us separate?”

“Yes, in row C.”

“D?”

“Three of you are in row D.”

And on and on it goes. I’m beginning to think I really will have to sing the Alphabet Song to her if this continues.

“This,” says the lady, pointing up at the ceiling. “Is intolerable.”

She’s quite right. It really is.

“Sorry,” says the usher. “They’re turning it down.”

Oh. She meant the music. Huh. I was rather enjoying it.

My neighbour twists around on our bench to look at me.

“How long is this?” he asks.

People faffing around finding their seats? A fucking eternity. Oh, he means the play.

“70 minutes,” I tell him.

“70 minutes?” he nods and turns back to face the stage, apparently satisfied with that answer.

Eventually, with a lot more usher assistance, everyone manages to find their seats. You have to admire the King’s Head for their dedication to the cause of allocated seating. Lesser venues would have through it over in favour of the free-for-all years ago.

As we all settle down, the guy from the box office comes in, brandishing a bucket and with a tote bag slung over his shoulder. I think we all know what that means. It’s the upsell.

“Welcome to the King’s Head Theatre,” he starts before introducing himself. Should I mention a front of houser’s name? Is that appropriate? I don’t usually. But I guess, he gave his name willingly, so… it’s Alex.

He has a prepared speech. The King’s Head isn’t subsidised. They need to raise a hundred grand a year. The pub and the theatre are separate. The theatre gets none of that revenue. “If you ordered a double at the bar tonight, you’re not helping us,” he says, as if that was ever the point of ordering a double.

But never fear, theatre audiences, Alex has a plan.

“When people ask where you were on Thursday night, you can tell them you were at the King’s Head Theatre,” he says, straightening out the tote bag so that we can all see the design. “It’s fairtrade. It’s organic. It’s only five pounds.

“But what do you put inside the tote bag? Well, how about a Brexit playtext?” he says, pulling a handsomely covered book from the bucket. “Only five pounds and available from the box office after the show. Or,” he says, pulling something else out of the tin bucket. “A DVD documentary about the King’s Head Theatre.” That’s only three pounds he tells us, which sounds like a right old bargain to me until I remember I haven’t owned any kind of tech capable of playing a DVD in around seven years. “Or,” he goes on. “I have this bucket. It’s a tradition at the King’s Head. If you have any spare change, unfold it and drop it in.”

That gets a laugh. Hopefully it also gets them some fivers.

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That done. It’s on with the play.

Brexit.

I can well and truly say that I’ve had my fill of the subject. But, well, I thought it would be appropriate. Pin this marathon into the calendar like a still wriggling butterfly into a frame.

And it’s funny. It really is. With lots of backroom dealings and double-crossings and clever wordplay and references to ‘Matron’ the former prime minister.

Set in the near future, where everything is exactly the same but even more so. Endless rounds of talk, with no one capable of making a decision. The withholding of closure on an entire continent.

As the applause fades, I reach under my seat to grab my bag.

“You seemed rather detached from that?” says my neighbour as I re-emerge.

Did I? “I’m just very tired,” I say, which seems to be my answer for every bit of criticism I’m receiving at the moment. No matter what it is. Missed a deadline? Tired. Finished of the last of the biscuits? Tired. Forgot to pay the gas bill? Again? So. Fucking. Tired. I mean, it's not like we even need gas. Not in this weather.

“I did enjoy it though,” I clarify, just in case he thinks I’m dissing the play. I’m not. I really did enjoy it.

He sits back surprised. “You’re American?”

“Err… no?” I say, equally surprised. I’m really not American, and couldn’t even do the accent if I tried.

He doesn't say anything to that. I'm not sure whether he's pleased with my lack of Americanness or not.

I get up to leave, but his comment is still playing on my mind, even when I'm halfway down Upper Street.

Detached? How would he even know? Perhaps I wasn't laughing enough. That could be it. But I'd say the general reaction to Brexit (the play) is more of a giggle than a guffaw. So that can't be it. Surely. I must have been acting very strangely for him to feel the need to point it out. Have I started talking to myself? Oh god, I've started talking to myself, haven't I? I'm doing it right now, aren't I? Shit. Don't answer that. Talking to yourself is one thing. Getting an answer is quite another.

Whatever I was doing, I can't help but think that this is punishment for my blog. After passing judgement on the audiences of over 160 theatres, they've now finally turned on me.

You know what…? I think I just got reviewed.

And I did not get five stars.

Farcing about

Next time I say that walking from Tufnell Park up towards Highgate might be a nice thing to do of an evening, please remind me that I'm not a fit person to make such statements. I'm not a fit person at all. Because that hill is not fun. It is the opposite of fun. If there was any fun to be had, it got left behind in Archway.

Shakey of limb and red of face, I make it to the Gatehouse pub and stand back to admire it in all its mock-Tudor glory, and catch my breath.

It's a fancy pub. I can tell that by the menu being posted outside in a shiny glass and metal box. The steps leading up to the door and a checkboard of ivory and terracotta. A glass lantern hangs overhead. And a cherub watches me balefully from his panel tucked under the door's canopy roof.

Something about the cherub is bothering me. His smug fatty cheeks, and wings coming out of his head, just seem to say: you can't come in here. Well, I won't be talked to like that by any plaster pipsqueak, so I walk all the way around the building looking for another entrance.

Over on the opposite side, there's another door. No cherub. But it does have a sign. "Pub & Theatre Entrance," it says in golden serifs.

It's almost like I knew. I've never been here before, but this marathon is starting to give me a sixth-sense about how these places work. Well, that's what I think. And it's either that or the cherub really was a smug little bastard who didn't want me walking in under him.

I go in. It's very dark here. All wood panelling and low lighting. The kind of pub you could imagine falling asleep with a hot toddy waking up a century later to find everything looking exactly the same. Oh well, barring any accidental encounters with a spindle, hundred year sleeps are not on the agenda for me right now. There's a door marked THEATRE EXTRANCE right here, so I think that's where I'm supposed to be heading. The wood-panelled aesthetic continues into the small foyer, offset by a pile of Edinburgh Fringe brochures and a chalkboard advertising interval drinks. Through another door (this one marked "Box Office Upstairs" with a handy arrow to point the way) and... I seem to have walked into a juniper berry.

Everything is purple. Or lilac, rather. The walls. The window frames. The ceiling. It's like the theatre had a mid-life crisis while reading taht Jenny Joseph poem.

When I am old, I shall paint myself purple. With a notice board which has too many posters, and looks a bit messy. And I shall spend my ticket income on sets and new writing.

And... well, you get it. I'm not a poet. My lack of rhythm extends beyond my inability to clap in time with music.

Up the stairs, round the corner, up more stairs and here we are, I guess. They really weren't kidding when they called this place Upstairs at the Gatehouse, were they?

Blimey, they're not short of room up here. I wide foyer, with the box office in its own separate room up ahead, and what looks like another bar off to the left and the theatre entrance off to the right.

I go to the box office. No balancing lurking in a corner, or balancing on a ledge here. This box office is a proper counter, larger than most off west end houses. It's also purple.

And there are headshots everywhere. I'm beginning to think I might be in the lair of a serial killer. One who is obsessed with fringe theatre.

I give my name to the box office lady, get my name checked off on a piece of paper, then she does something on the computer and a few seconds later, a paper ticket is printing. That's a sure sign of a box office system that is made of processes cobbled together, patched up, and in need of a good overhaul, but I don't even care because I got myself a paper ticket out of it, and it's frickin' purple.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask, spotting a display of them on the counter. They're three quid, which is a bit of a bargain as they look like there's quite a few pages going on there.

Programme and ticket acquired I make my way back to the foyer. It looks like the house is open, so I figure I should go in.

There's a pair of furry creatures balanced on a low table by the door. They're wearing dresses. I want to take a photo but the ticket checker is looking at me so I scoot over to her and show her my ticket.

Seats are unallocated, so she just waves me inside, and I walk straight into a living room.

Green walls. A sofa with cushions. Coffee table. The type of bookshelves that someone who doesn't read would own.

And about 100 chairs facing it.

The stage at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is massive. Yes, in pub theatre terms, but even more than that. It just goes on and on. Fitting what looks like an entire flat on it. A flat larger than most people in London would ever even get the sniff of the chance of living in.

I pick a seat someone in the middle row, forgoing my usual end of third row choice, as the end of the row is all the way in the distance and I'm not sure my legs can take the extra mileage after all those stairs after my mighty trek up the highest hill in the world, or at least London, or at least north London, or at least... I'm not Googling this. Just take my word for it. The hill is very high.

It's still early, and there aren't many people in yet, giving my a good chance to turn around in my seat and inspect what's happening behind me.

The seats all have those little plaques attached to them, where theatre fans have given money in exchange for the honour of having someone sit on their name until the upholstery gives out.

The back row is different though. Blue seats where the rest of us have red. Wider, and comfier looking too. And every single one of them has a reserved sign attached to it. Like, literally attached. As in the word 'reserved' is printed on a satin banner which flips over to indicate the reserved status of the seat.

Gradually people come in, and sure enough, most of the reserved seats are claimed.

The rest of us space ourselves out more. Most going for the front row, but a dedicated contingent choosing the separate bank over at the far end.

And almost all of them... gosh, how do I say this politely. Hmmm. Let's go with: almost all of them look like they live in Highgate. Yeah, that'll do. You know what I mean.

A man in a waistcoat leans against an empty seat to chat to some second rowers.

There's a lot of then going on. Chatter between the different rows.

Local theatre for local people.

It's a thing, I'm telling you.

The man with the waistcoat disappears, and comes back with a small stack of programmes.

"Does anyone need a progamme?" he asks, making his way down the row of seats, the programmes displayed in an attractive fan.

They are nice programmes, with a wrap-around image of a block of flats on the cover, which I'm enjoying. There's a short note from the playwright. And wee little pictures of mice scurrying around in between the biographies. Most interesting of all though, is the programme designer, Corinna Bordoli, is credited amongst the creatives for the production. And why not? Programme designers are integral to the theatre-going experience. At least, they're integral to my theatre-going experience. I like it.

Waistcoat-man is back again, hands-free of programmes now.

"I don't know if you're here for the post-show talk," he says, taking up position at the front of the stage area. "If not, I've got a nice surprise for you! The cast and the writer will come out and we'll have a nice chat about the play. It'll be in here. Not the pub. There's too many of us, though we'd all like to go to the pub." He throws out his arms as an apology for the lack of pub-location. "We'll give you a few minutes at the end, just in case you don't want to stay, but please do." Another apologetic gesture with his arms. "Anyway, we've got a play to get on with.." he says, leaving the stage.

His voice is replaced by one of the sound systems.

"Please take your glasses down to the bar during the interval, or at the end of the show," the disembodied voice says. "Switch off your mobile phones, or anything that beeps or vibrates."

"That would be interesting," a lady sitting in the third row whispers loudly as the lights dim.

Jennifer Matter rushes on stage. A minute later, she sits down, crossing her legs. Her red dress rucks up, revealing lacey stocking tops and suspenders.

There's a shocked gasp for a woman in the front row.

More gasps, and indeed, titters, follow as Matter takes off the red dress, to reveal the exact top of lingerie that you are probably imagining.

Ah, I can see what sort of play this is going to be. And yup, sure enough, despite the multiple references to millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the rest of it, we are firmly in the realm of seventies farce. With all the door slamming, mistaken identities, outfit knicking, and gender confusion of it all.

It's enjoyable though, and the interval rolls around soon enough. I go off to explore what exacting is the Green Room and what happens in there.

Eating ice cream, apparently. Because that's what everyone is doing. With the pub below, the drinkers have all gone downstairs to fill their glasses. Everyone else is in here, buying two quid ice creams out of the massive freezer.

It feels like Flat Out’s writer, Jennifer Selway, not only wants to have her cake and eat it too, but also wants a slice of everyone else’s. She’ll put in all those grandious lines of there being nothing wrong with a gentlemen enjoying a good pencil skirt, but she has no qualms with using said gentleman for laughs when he puts on a dress. She wants us to nod knowingly along when a character declares she couldn’t sleep with someone who voted to leave, but then uses a character’s Ukraian accent as the basis for a crude joke.

It’s all a little tiresome.

And confusing.

Who is this play meant for?

The guffawing old men of Highgate? Or those young millennials, who Jake Mitchell’s property developing scoundrel so rightfully points out, aren’t prepared to feel sorry for someone with a second home in South Ken any time soon. Even if it does have rats.

As with all farces, the final scene takes a long time to wrap up., but we get there eventually.

I don't stay for the talk.

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Stone Penge

Penge!

I don’t know what this place is, or even exactly where it is, but I’m enjoying saying the hell out of it, and have been doing so ever since I found out how it’s pronounced. About five minutes ago.

“This train is calling out New Cross Gate, Brockley, Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge West…”

Penge, Penge, Penge, Penge, Penge.

It’s a great name. I’m very much in favour of places with great names. Even if it does feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere when you get out the station. There’s a lot of green stuff out here. Trees, I think they’re called. You don’t get many of them round my way.

According to Google Maps I need to turn right to get to my next theatre, and… oh, is that it? I can literally see it from here. Well, that was easy.

I stroll down the road towards the pub on the corner.

It’s very quiet. The only cars on the road are the ones parked along the curb.

I look both ways to cross. I need to get some distance for my exterior shots. But I end up standing in the middle of the road to take the photos. No car comes. I'm there for quite a while, feeling the power of standing still in the middle of the road thrum through me, until someone walks by on the pavement and gives me a funny look, and I feel embarrassed so slink back over in shame.

Still, Bridge House is a handsome building. And I say handsome because it’s very masculine, not that I want to get all gender-normative on a pub, but that’s the energy I’m getting. A sophisticated man, to be sure. Black pepper aftershave and a saddle tan leather weekend bag lifted straight out of the Vogue Christmas buying guide ‘for him’. Anyway, in building terms its red brick and black-painted stucco. And boxy. Like a child’s drawing of a building. Almost completely cuboid.

And lots of writing too. Not that I think writing is inherently masculine, you understand. I mean, obviously. I’m just mentioning it. As a totally separate point.

There’s information about the next pub quixz up on the wall. A rundown of the events in some local festival painted on the window. A warning about the deck being slippery placed under the window. And a rather pissy note about not putting cigarette butts in the plant pots over by the door.

Inside it’s all dark walls and rugged wooden tables. There are antlers on the walls and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It’s also very quiet.

This is my kind of pub.

On the left, white sheets screen off a room. The sign stuck to the fabric warns of a life drawing class happening on the other side. Clipboards and art supplies wait on the table outside.

Sadly, I’m not here to get my charcoal on, so I head in the other direction.

Up the stairs, towards the bar. Except, not quite yet. I’m going to pause here a moment. These stairs need to be appreciated. Wide and deep with a little hint of sweepingness to them. These are the type of stairs that Scarlett O’Hara would make full use of if she was here.

I’m so glad I wore a long skirt today. Long enough that I have to pick it up at the front to go up stairs, so I don’t trip over it.

Look, I’m not saying I want to live in the Victorian age. That would be terrible. But I do harbour the conviction that I would be pretty darn good at it if somehow u did get flung back in time. As long as I was rich. And able bodied. And educated. Had control over my personal fortune. Was unmarried. And… hmmm. Okay. Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy having a good sweep up some nice stairs when I have half a chance.

Up here is the bar. But I don’t need to go there.

There’s a table set up right at the top of the stairs and it looks hella box officey. There’s even a sign advertising £1 programmes, which is a bit of a clue.

I give my surname and get checked off the handwritten list and given a lilac admission token.

Just as I’m reaching for my purse so I can grab one of those one pound programmes, the box office man hands me a sheet of paper.

“And here's a free cast sheet,” he says.

“Oh, lovely,” I say surprised. You don’t usually get cast sheets, free or otherwise, when there’s a programme that needs selling. But, now that I look at the desk, I can’t actually see any programmes, one pound’s worth or otherwise. Perhaps they keep them under the counter. Perhaps the content is a little to risqué for public viewing. There might be children about after all.

I consider asking, but I’m happy with my cast sheet, and anyway, the conversation has moved on and I am rapidly getting left behind.

“We’ll be opening around twenty past,” says the box officer. “You know, first night, technical things.”

No need to explain, good man! Twenty past seven is a perfectly reasonable time to be opening up a theatre above a pub. Especially one with unallocated seating.

“You can go to the bar, take drinks up. We’ll make an announcement, but don't wander too far.”

Right, noted.

Time to explore then. But not too far. Obviously.

There’s a beer garden, but I’m not overly committed to this weather, so I find a table and plonk my bag down.

The tables around me begin to fill up. Everyone is clasping little lilac admission tokens.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre,” comes a loud voice over the tannoy. “Tonight’s performance of Twelfth Night will start at 7.30.  If you have tickets for tonight’s performance make yourself known at box office, or if you'd like to buy tickets, also make yourself known at box office.”

If the bouquets of lilac admission tokens are anything to go by, the entirety of this pub has already made themselves known at box office.

“Good evening,” comes the tannoy again. Then silence. Then a splutter as it kicks into life again. “Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre. Tonight’s performance of Twelfth Night night will start at 7.30.” There’s a pause. Except, not quite a pause. I can still hear him talking. Just very quietly, somewhere far away. “If you bought tickets on line please go to the box office situated on...” Here the microphone gives up again, and so does the speaker.

The pub lapses back into quiet chatter.

Some ladies at the table next to me start turning around in their chairs, looking back at the bar. “Have they gone in?” one asks. “It looks they’ve they’ve gone in.”

I turn around too. It does look they’ve gone in. The bar looks curiously empty.

“I’m just going to…” says one lady getting out of her chair. She pauses, and grabs her drink, and her admission token. “I just don’t want to be sitting here and…”

She goes off, in search of answers.

Seconds pass. Then minutes.

She hasn’t come back.

Chairs scrape as the other ladies get to their feet and they also grab their drinks and their tokens and follow on behind.

I look after them. Should I go too? It’s not 7.30 yet, but we’re close. Really close.

The ladies return, silently placing their drinks down on the table and taking their seats.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre… The house is now open.”

The ladies almost groan as chairs scrape and drinks are picked up again.

“Please have your tickets ready at the top of the stairs. Mind the step as you come in.”

By the time I make it back towards the bar, there’s already a queue coming out the door to the theatre.

Whatever they are putting in the drinks at Bridge House, they should weaponise it. These people are speedy.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says the box office person, holding the door that leads back to the theatre and checking the lilac passes as they come through.

Inside, the walls are painted. Trompe l'oeil (I took first year Art History at uni, okay?) woodgrain on the doors, Christmas cartoons running up the stairs, and a clock waiting for us up at the top to show us the finish time. Very nice.

Plus, I still have my admission pass! Double nice.

“Ticket?”

Oh. Turns out I do have to give it back. Oh well. At least I have my cast sheet.

“Mind the step,” says the person on duty at the door to the theatre space.

I immediately stumble over the step.

In my defence, I was staring at the theatre.

It’s a black box. So, don’t get too excited. I mean, it’s a nice black box. The walls don’t have that strange crumbly consistency that you so often find in these places. Someone knows a good plasterer, is what I’m saying.

But more importantly, instead of having a boring bank of seats facing a stage, chairs have been placed all along the walls and in the middle… is that a beach?

It looks like sand. In a neat rectangle taking up most of the floor space. And there are those wooden posts tied with rope that you always see by the sea, that I'm not sure of the purpose of, but possibly it’s to do with keeping the beach pinned to the ground so that it doesn’t roll into the waves or something. There’s also some twig-based matting going on.

There isn’t much room between the sand and the seats, what with people’s bags and all, so I pick my way along the matting to get to a spare chair.

A front of houser comes around holding a switch-ya-phone-off sign. He walks slowly, holding the sign at eye height, making sure each one of us has seen it before moving on.

Right then. No excuses.

I better check my phone.

Airplane mode initialised. We are ready!

I’m quite excited now. I’ll admit, I was a little wary about Shakespeare in a pub theatre. I’m not, well, ‘into’ Shakespeare. Shakespeare and me don’t get on. Frankly, I think most of his plays are crap. Too long. Too many sub plots. Way too much showing instead of telling. And don’t even talk to me about a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was basically trolling the audience in that one. In the modern sense of the word. But Twelfth Night… ahh, I do like Twelfth Night. Just the right amount of improbability, balanced out by a good dose of self-awareness.

And look how young and sweet this cast is, with their fresh adorable faces and boundless energy as they rush on and off the stage, slipping between roles with off-stage commentary to cover the costume changes.

And what costumes. I’m having a serious case of costume envy here. Orsino’s shiny satin dressing gown definitely belongs in my wardrobe, as does Olivia’s black wrap coat. As for the Feste’s pink Lennon glasses, I’m eBaying that shit as soon as the interval hits.

A phone goes off.

Vibrating loudly inside its owners bag.

She jumps and reaches down for it in alarm.

Sat on a wooden post, while receiving Orsino's words of love via a messenger boy, Miriam Grace Edwards’ Olivia turns her head and gives the owner of the phone an imperious stare. At least I presume it’s an imperious stare, I can’t actually see. She’s facing the other way. But the back of Edwards’ head sure looks imperious.

“Where lies your text?” she asks Eve Niker’s Viola.

Where indeed.

In the interval, we’re all ordered out.

“See you in a bit, mind the step,” says the man on the door.

I promptly stumble over it. Again.

My table is still empty. I dump my bag and myself in its comfortable embrace. It’s beginning to feel like home.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre,” comes the voice over the tannoy. “This is your three minute call for the second half. Three minutes. Please start to make your what back the the theatre.”

“Welcome back!” says the man on the door.

My foot catches the step as I pass.

The mobile phone sign is making another round, bouncing up and down so that we definitely don’t miss it this time. It pauses in front of the phone lady. Her neighbour points at her, dobbing her in. And the sign pumps in and out. We all laugh. Oh dear. Poor lady. She’s taking it well. Laughing and nodding along. She definitely won’t be making that mistake again any time soon.

We’re ready to begin again.

And oh gosh, I’d forgotten just how long this play was. All that bit with the letter and Malvolio in prison. And Sir Toby Belch. Just, all of him. I wish there was a retelling radicle enough to cut him out. But we’re zipping along all the same, only pausing long enough for a song before we’re off again.

Opposite me, two people take up a corner with notebooks resting on their laps, and for once I get to pick the first option in my game of Director or Blogger. It is the first night, and well, technical things.

Although which of them can claim the role I cannot quite decide. I wanna say the bloke but that's just the old gender normative social conditioning again. And I just spotted a third notebook on my left, and a laptop to my right, which is throwing everything up in the air.

The lady in the corner is laughing a lot though. And she did jump when Niker started waving around that blade while hiding in that corner. Perhaps she is a blogger after all.

The cast gather for the final song, and stretch out their arms to clap in the universal gesture indicating that we should join in. I try, but, you know me and rhythm. I ain't git none. Still, bless them. I can't even be mad.  They're all so... heartbreakingly wholesome. I'm utterly charmed with the lot of them. Even Fayez Bakhsh's Sir Toby Belch.

Last time crossing the threshold, and I don’t trip over the step. I’m feeling pretty damn smug right now, I can tell you.

A front of houser is positioned at the top of the stairs, wishing everyone a good night.

“If you know anyone who might like it, please tell them!” he says.

Hmm. I mean, I did like it. So consider yourself told.

Right, I've got a staircase that needs sweeping down.

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Behind Closed Doors

It’s bank holiday Monday and having a roast in a fancy pub sounds pretty swell right about now. But unfortunately I’m not here for food. I’ve got to go watch some theatre.

There’s another chalk sign above I door that's just beyond the bar. THEATRE it says, in all caps with an arrow pointing up.

The door itself has its own sign. In gold. THROUGH TO THE GENTS. Gotta love a venue that sorts the latrines with the mise en scène.

Anyway, I go through. Not to the gents, but up the stairs. There are lots of frames gracing the stairs on the way up, which in any lesser pub-theatre would be show posters from all their previous productions. But the Drayton Arms doesn’t stoop to such vulgar exploits, and instead have old maps, and a portrait of Ellen Terry advertising Allen & Ginter’s cigarettes, and what looks like a Toulouse Lautrec print

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Etcetera, etcetera and so forth

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undetermined. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.

I’m there on the right night.

Believe me.

I’ve checked. Multiple times.

The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.

“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.

I don’t smoke.

“So, what’s your name then?”

Christ. Do we really have to do this?

I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.

So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.

I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.

I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.

"That bad?" I'd laughed.

"No. Just... um..."

I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...

There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.

I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.

The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.

Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.

I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.

Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.

Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to go. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.

And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.

Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etetcerta theatre signed off tonight.

If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.

It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.

That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.

Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.

But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.

"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.

Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.

It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).

It's nice out here. Quite despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.

"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etercera Theare, subject to availability."

That's clever. I like that.

The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.

I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.

Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.

The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.

The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.

The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.

There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club.

Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.

I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.

"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.

She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."

It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to move down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.

Silence.

Is it starting?

A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.

She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.

Everyone seems a little nervous.

I think it's the set.

Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.

It's a school room.

I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.

Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I was well up for that.

Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...

Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.

But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they tried to get as far way from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.

What it is is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.

Like the protagonist of Killymuck at the bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.

I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.

When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.

What a difference an hour makes.

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Don't cry over spilt water

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms in Camden looking at my phone. I’ve just spent the last five minutes taking photos of the exterior and I’m now checking them to make sure they didn’t come out too fuzzy or too dark. I’m not much of a photographer, but I try.

There’s a theatre in this pub. Not that you get much of a sense of that from the outside. Not proud proclamations of being a theatre pub up from the sign. No posters in the window. Not hanging banners. All we get is an A-frame sign in the doorway with the Etcetera Theatre street-sign inspired logo, and the listings of the upcoming shows stuck beneath.

I zoom into the image, checking that the logo was legible.

It was. I know I bang on about it, but I really love the Pixel 2.

But something catches my eye. Something small. I spread my fingers, enlarging the image even more.

There, on the image announcing the show I’m there to see, is a line of text. The date. Tomorrow’s date.

I spin around. Looking at the poster in real life doesn’t help. It still says Wednesday 17th April.

Today is Tuesday.

I had turned up on the wrong day.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shitshitshit.

Okay. Don’t panic. It’s fine. The show had an early start. It wasn’t even 7pm yet. I had time to get to wherever I was supposed to be.

Probably.

I bring up my spreadsheet on my phone. Tuesday / 16.04.19 / Evening / Etcetera Theatre.

Gawdammit.

It was the spreadsheet that was wrong. The one thing that stood between me and total marathon-chaos had failed.

Breathe, Maxine.

Think.

I could move Wednesday’s outing. It was a non-marathon thing anyway.

Fine.

But what about tonight?

I suddenly had a free evening. I could go home. Eat a proper dinner. May even, and this was really out there, do some laundry.

I start walking towards the tube station. If I’m quick, I could be home before 7.45pm. I could get at least two loads done before bed time. That’s woollens and whites. I’m almost bouncing with brimming potential.

And then I remember.

Eight theatres. I’d just found eight London-based, marathon-qualified, theatres that needed to be added to the list. A list that had already grown by twelve theatres over the weekend. 275 theatres. Plus eight that still need to be added to the website. 283 theatres.

Tonight was supposed to be theatre number 105.

That leaves… I’m too stressed to maths. It’s… a lot of theatres still to go by the end of the year.

I couldn’t let this evening go to waste on dinner and laundry. Not without a fight.

I retrieve my phone from my pocket, and recheck the spreadsheet. Could I move something up? Tricky.

I swipe the spreadsheet away and open up TodayTix instead. Perhaps there’s a bargain going in the West End. I can still make it if I get on the tube, like, right now.

Nothing. Booking has closed for the night.

Shit.

What else?

I’m scrolling back and forth through my apps, as if one called Free Ticket Anyone Facing A Spreadsheet Fail might leap out from between the icons.

I pause.

There is something.

My Maps.

If you’ve ever visited the home page of my website, you might have noticed the map there. It has all (well, nearly all, I don’t update it nearly enough) of the marathon venues there. Red for the ones I’ve been to. Yellow for the ones I still need to visit.

I open it.

There are three theatres within a mile of the Etcertera. The Roundhouse. Teatro Technis. And The Lion and the Unicorn.

I start Googling.

Nothing at the Roundhouse. It’s dark tonight.

Teatro Technis’ show doesn’t open until Friday.

With shaking fingers I click my way to The Lion and Unicorn’s website.

Thank god. They have a show.

What time is it? Past seven. They might have already printed out the lists for tonight. I would have to turn up and hope I could buy a ticket on the door.

Was I really doing this?

Breathe.

Think.

Fuck it. No time for that.

Run!

I pelt it down Camden High Street, barely waiting for the lights to change as I turn right, then right again onto Kentish Town Road.

What street is in on again? Gainsford Road? Over there. Another right.

I slow down, catching my breath.

After the clutter and filth of Kentish Town Road, I seem to have stumbled into some middle class oasis. Tall stuccoed town houses line the streets. There are trees. I can even hear birdsong.

And there it is. Coming up on the left.

The Lion & Unicorn Pub.

I have never been so grateful to see a pub in my life.

There’s a chalkboard in the window, proudly proclaiming what’s on this month in the theatre.

I go instead.

“Theatre This Way” says a helpful little sign over a small door.

I go through, and find a makeshift box office balanced on a ledge beside the stairs.

“Err. Can I buy a ticket?” I ask, realised that I have no idea what show is actually on. That didn’t seem a particularly important factor up until now.

Turns out I could.

It’s been a long time since I bought a ticket in person. Turns out it’s a bit of a faff.

“Can I take your email?” asks the guy on ledge-duty, to whom I can only apologise to for making him type in my entire fucking email address on a tablet. That is not a fate that I would wish on anyone.

“First name Max I take it?”

He can.

“And surname Smiles?”

Yup.

“That's a nice surname.”

It is.

“Do you want to join the mailing list? Don't feel you have to say yes. I never do.”

Well, I would, but I won't be able to return until next year so… Probably best not to explain all that. I just cringe and decline.

Should I ask what the show is? Bit late, now that I’ve already bought my ticket. Might come off as a little… weird. I’m already coming off as weird. I should just keep quiet.

It’ll be a nice surprise, whatever it is.

I hate surprises.

That was the whole point of the spreadsheet.

“House should open in five or six minutes. Bar just through there, loos downstairs.”

I have a walk around the pub.

It’s nice in here. Very nice. A bit fancy even.

The walls are papered in a caviar print.

There’s black and white tiles near the bar.

And large wooden tables.

And… a dog bowl? Two dog bowls?

That’s either a sign that they are supremely dog friendly or… oh my god. There’s a dog. There’s a dog in the pub. He’s walking around, getting pets from the patron. Oh, my lord he’s cute. And blonde. With curly fur.

My second pub theatre dog this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

He walks past me and I give him a little pat.

He’s not impressed by my pats. He’s probably had hundreds of them already today.

He moves on.

The bell rings. The house is open.

“You just bought a ticket,”ledge-guy confirms, pointing at me as I go through the door. “We try and be paper free.”

Up the stairs, past a row of tasteful looking show posters (this place really is fancy…), following someone who looks like she knows where she’s going.

She opens a door. It does not lead to a theatre. Ummm.

We get pointed in the right direction. Which is, in fact, left.

Ah. Here we are. The theatre.

Larger than I expected. Much larger than any pub theatre I’ve ever been in.

So fucking fancy.

There is a freesheet placed on every single sheet. The sure sigh of a classy establishment.

I chose the first row with a proper rake. It’s the fifth row. After so many teeny-tiny pub theatres, this ends up feeling very far away. Fifth row and I'm complaining. Fifth row with suburb leg room. God this place is so fucking classy.

At 7.33 the bell rings again, and the last stragglers are chivvied upstairs.

It’s not often you get double-bell action outside of places like the Opera House.

So. Fucking. Fancy.

I pick up my freesheet and have a look.

Turns out I was there for Hatch Scratch. A night of new writing.

Cool.

A woman comes to the front of the stage. The plays have all been written around the theme of “taboo.”

Double cool.

The first play of the night if about social anxiety, which I take as a personal attack. Bloody playwrights, bringing real things to life on the stage.

On the list of taboos we also have child abandonment, ISIS brides and a mother struggling to cope with her child who has disabilities (“I’m a cunt,” she announces, which surely has to be the best opening line to a play, ever).

Ledge-guy reappears. “If you can all vacate the space, I’ll bring you back up after the interval.”

We all march downstairs. The actors are already there, at their own table, eating chips.

Good as his word, the ledge-guy rings the bell again. “The house is now open for act two of Hatch.”

We all heave ourselves up and head back towards the stairs.

“Please be careful on the stairs, there's a little spillage,” says the ledge-guy. There is indeed a small dribble of water on the steps. At least, I hope its water. I side-step it.

The second half is packed with more taboos. Suicide and masturbation (in the same play, which is quite the twofer), polyamory, and abortion. Plus, and I shudder to write this one down, chia-eaters.

I’ve seen a lot of scratch nights in my time. A lot of terrible scratch nights.

I don’t know how to take this one. The writing is good. The acting excellent.

Where are the crumpled scripts hanging out of back pockets? Where is the badly edited music padding out half-written scenes? Where are the rushed endings, and poor characterisation, and jokes that don’t land? What? Am I supposed to laugh at this funny lines that are being delivered perfectly?

Fucking amateurs.

As the actors all file back in to take their bows I can see that the stage is exactly fourteen actors wide, which is a hella impressive width for a pub theatre stage. Fancy fuckers.

Ledge-guy appears to thank the company. I’m feeling a bit bad about thinking of him as the ledge-guy now.

“I'll be standing just outside with a Magic bucket. So if you have any share change, notes, coins, anything...”

Okay, ledge-guy. I just spent twelve quid on a ticket that I was forced to buy because I’m an idiot. I realise that’s not your fault, but I’m fresh out of funds for the week.

“Please take your glasses with you. It makes our lives that bit easier.”

He disappears through the door to rattle his magic bucket.

There’s a regular ping as coins bounce off the bottom. So I don’t feel too bad about not contributing my own ping.

Next time. I promise.

Seriously though. The Lion & Unicorn is fancy as fuck.

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No Sense

“Wait for the bell. Go upstairs. Sit where you like. You can take in a drink.”

I’m in the Old Red Lion pub. The granddaddy of them all when it comes to pub theatres. And these are the instructions I’m given as the box office lady picks up one of the laminated admission tokens from a pile on the counter and hands it to me.

I’m grateful for them. The instructions I mean. This evening sounds like it’s going to be a bit challenging on the old brain-front, and I think I’m going to need all the guidance I can get.

I’m here for Theatre Without Sight or Sound, which I’m going to admit right out, is a bit naughty of me. I mentioned a few posts back that I have rules, and I have rules: the official ones, and the not-so-official-but-equally-valid ones. One of those unofficial rules is that I try to avoid seeing hires. Then XXX days later, what am I doing? I’m booking for a show listed in the visiting companies section of the theatre’s website, that’s what.

In my defence - I thought it would make a good blog post. Yup. That’s it. I wanted to write about it. That’s my reason.

Anyway, they’re my not-technically-the-rules, and I’ll break them if I damn well please.

I grab a sofa. One of those leather chesterfields that make you feel like you’re waiting to tell than nice Dr Watson and his creepy acquaintance all about your missing Aunt Gertrude. It’s curiously unoccupied, until I realise that it’s positioned to face the loos.

After the second time I get my foot trodden on by someone with a bladder even weaker than their eyesight, I realise that I should probably move. After the third time my stubbiness kicks in and I sink defiantly into the cushions. On the fourth time my toes get squashed, I’m ready to do some squashing of my own…

The bell rings.

There’s now a queue to get into the theatre, and from my position on the sofa, I seem to now be right at the front of it.

I consider feeling guilty about this but, hey, I’ve had my foot trodden on four times and I didn’t even hit anyone. I deserve this.

We traipse upstairs. Old show posters are wallpapered up the steps. They date back to the nineties, when tickets were a fiver, and London still had a 0171 area code.

The corridor upstairs is red. Very red. Pub theatre red, as I’m now starting to think of it.

“Put this on,” says a woman by the door to the theatre, handing me a blindfold fresh out of the packet.

I decide that this instruction is one that needs a little delay before following through on. There’s still the matter of finding my seat to get through first.

The seating at the ORL is built up on two sides. They’re made up of wooden benches, akin to church pews but significantly less wholesome looking. Something about the addition of the buttoned red fabric makes it look distinctly debauched. These benches must have seen a lot over the years.

I go for the second row, opposite the door. I like to be able to keep an eye on the exit. Especially for the type of show where you get handed a blindfold. There’s no telling what might happen at the type of show where you get handed a blindfold.

Thankfully, we have someone to explain.

The first three plays of the evening are to be performed without sight (that’s where the blindfolds come in). After an interval, they’ll be another set of three - these ones without sound.

“Try to keep the blind folds on to preserve the theatre magic. But if you need to rub your eye, that's fine,” we’re told. "Place your wine in your hand, not under the seat. Once you put your blindfold on, I promise you won't be able to find it."

Right then. Blindfold on. It’s time for the first play.

Oh god, this is going to smudge my eyeliner, isn’t it? I try to put in on carefully, but it’s no good. I might have well sat myself down in the splash zone at Titus Andronicus for the mess it's going to make.

Well, there's nothing for it. I say goodbye to my wings and put on the blindfold.

Things go a bit scifi in the first play, In the Shadow. A bit Black Mirror. A soul is trapped in the dark. And we're trapped with it. I imagine the benches as shelves in a lab. And all the blindfolded audience members as brains in jars, lined up and watching as our fellow consciousness struggles with his new reality.

As the play ends, loud clapping bring us back into the theatre.

Are we allowed to take our blindfolds off? I pull mine up tentatively. Others are doing to same. We blink into the light.

I wipe under my eyes, but there's no time to get out a mirror. The next play is being introduced: Two to the Chest.

I pull the blindfold back down and surrender to the darkness, but it's no good. I keep on getting pulled back. Someone is rustling a plastic bag behind me and I can't concentrate. The words seem to float around without meaning. I can't follow what's happening. Something about wrestling? I have no idea.

Voices move around the space. Coming close to me and then move away. I shrink back into the seat, suddenly very aware that the actors can see us, but we can't see them. The power balance feels all wrong. Distorted. As if we're in a dock, being judged, and unable to face our accusers.

The back of the bench is hard against my spine. I can't move. Every time I shift my weight it sounds like a symphony of creaking wood.

I try to concentrate on the play, but it's impossible. I can't focus.

When the applause breaks through, I don't hesitate to push my blindfold up onto my forehead. I crave the light. To know what is happening around me.

There's a few people in the audience who don't bother. The sit stoic, their black masks undisturbed.

Last play. The Monkey’s Paw. A story I despise. I have no patience for repetitive storylines. Three wishes from the genie's lamp. Three ghosts of Christmas past. Three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. Three big yawns from ya gal, Maxine.

It's a radio play, with some very dodgy sounding advertisers.

There's some proper foley action going on. I itch to take off my blindfold, but not because it's uncomfortable, but because I'm desperate to see what is going on. Bollocks to the theatre magic. For the first time, I get the sense that something is happening beyond the words. That the blindfold is actually preventing me from witnessing something interesting. The loss of a sense is a proper loss.

I sit on my hands, veering between delight and desperation as the play crackles on. This is it. This is the stuff. Here's were the writing (Jack Williams and Sara Butler) and direction (Matthew Jameson) have run with the idea of the lack of sight and made it into something beyond the mere absence of visuals.

"You can now take the blindfolds off," says our host.

The actors line up for their applause and we get to see them for the first time. Who was who? I can't tell. I check the freesheet. "The Monkey's Paw. Performed by Sophie Kisilevsky & Liam Harkins." Only two actors? I was convinced it was three. Blimey.

I reach into my bag and grab my compact. I'm a mess, with lines all over my face. I've aged forty years in forty minutes.

"Would you like me to take that back for you?" asks my neighbour, indicating the discarded blindfold sitting on the bench next to me.

Clearly she senses my pilfering fingers. I do love to steal an audience prop given half the chance.

I let her take it away.

Feeling woozy, I stumble back down the stairs to the pub. I'm not sure what to do with myself. Everything is too bright, but at the same time, not bright enough. My eyes dart around, unable to latch onto anything, until...

I don't mean to alarm anyone, but there's a dog on the sofa.

A massive dog.

A frickin' adorable dog.

He's asleep. No doubt exhausted from a hard day of pub theatre management.

I bite the inside of my mouth, trying very hard not to squee. Important dogs don't like being squeed at. Especially when they're sleeping.

I really want to pet him.

I back away slowly.

Back up the stairs and I notice something. There's a door set high into the wall. And it's open. Cool night air pours in.

Outside I catch a glimpse of a terrace.

Not letting myself think too hard about whether I was allowed out there, I climbed through.

There's not much of a view, but it's glorious all the same. I hadn't realised how stuffy it was inside until that moment.

I walk around a little, letting my limbs click back into place and my senses realign. This is just what I needed.

I'm ready to go back in.

"Here you go. Earplugs," says the woman on the door to the theatre handing me a small packet.

I really hope that they don't want us to give these back.

Our host reappears and we're given a short lesson on how to use them. Squish them down and stick 'em in, basically. Then wait for them to expand.

I don't know whether you've ever worn earplugs before, but let me tell you, they are next to useless. They're little better than sticking a finger over your ear when you're trying to have an important phone call in the office. They take off the edge, but in no way do they cut out sound.

Our host speaks to us through the medium of cue cards. A game of charades. People call out their guesses. We can hear the guesses. And yet, we all pretend that we're deaf to the world around is. That's the real charade.

The plays without sound start. First off, A Silent Farce. Set in a world where no one speaks. Actors hold phones to their ears and yet never say a word.

We don't hear anything, not because of the earplugs, but because there is nothing to hear.

The same in the next play, Tick-Tock. No one speaks. Communication is via touch and significant glances.

I'm beginning to wonder what the brief was for these plays. Did the writers know how the audience would be watching their work?

The host reappears in between each play, with his cards. Except this time he's brought the wrong ones. "say it's carol singers," the first one reads. We're being Love Actuallied.

Eventually, the mistake is realised, and the cards swapped out with the tech desk, for one with the name of the next play: Quest Invisible.

Reece Connolly comes out. He sticks a sign to his chest. "Stork," it says.

He pulls a rolled up blanket from a basket and sticks a sign onto that to. "Baby."

Something tells me things are going to get weird.

Five minutes later I find myself being handed a piece of paper with a large sperm drawn onto it. Connolly mimes that we should crumple up the paper and lob it at an egg he's placed onto a chair.

This we do. Wadded up paper balls fly across the stage, landing everywhere but on the chair. Connolly sighs. We failed to fertilise the egg.

Another sign is brought out. A gold one this time. "Super Sperm."

An audience member is dragged onto the stage. He's ordered to kneel down while the golden sign is folded into a paper aeroplane. He can get up now. To throw the dart. It misses. It wasn't a very good dart. So much for super sperm.

Jessica Wren, our mother-to-be, rushes back and forth across the stage, carrying fruit to indicate how big her baby is now.

A silent game of heads or tails is played with another audience member, to decide the personality of the baby, like we're building a new character in the Sims. Heads for yes. Tails for no. Sporty? Heads. Kind? Heads. Intelligent? Tails.

When the laughter gets too much, Connelly presses his fingers to his lips. Shh. We'll wake the baby! he mimes. It's so hard though! Rebekah King's didn't just create a world without sound, she made one where sound exists, but we're not allowed to use it.

As if to prove my point, Connelly goes up to his chosen one, the Super Sperm, after the curtain call. "Sorry," he apologies. "But it had to be you."

He can talk after all. When the baby's not around.

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The Multiverse is Female

You know that scene in Pride, when the young woman stands up in the working man's club, and sings out in her lilting Welsh accent about bread and roses, making everyone in the room a bit weepy eyed? Yeah, I totally wasn't thinking about that when I booked to see a show at the Bread & Roses pub.

If anything, it was a spur of the moment decision to go. Perhaps driven by my recent bread-and-theatre ponderings at the Hen & Chickens, or maybe by the rose-print dress that I put on in the morning. Or, more likely, because the marketing copy promised the presence of a female serial killer and I am all about that. I'm all about equal opportunities, and I don't see what the criminal classes should get off easily with fighting the patriarchy.

Still, it didn't stop me getting a little bit itchy around the eyes when I stepped through the door and saw the line "our lives shall not be sweetened from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as wells as bodies: Give us Bread but give us Roses" written in a scrolling script over the bar. It's right next to the sign for the theatre, making it quite clear what the roses are in this analogy.

The roses however, are not on view quite yet. A red rope cordoned off the entrance to the theatre.

I find a good leaning spot and wait it out. Unfortunately my spot is right next to the stage. The other stage. For the band that will be playing later on. They're warming up. Loudly. Very loudly. Like, ear-splittingly loud. They're not supposed to start until 9pm, and it's not even, so I can only hope that they're getting their levels set before the performance upstairs starts. Somehow I don't think this place has invested in top-notch soundproofing.

At least I know it will be a short show though. Gotta be done in time for the gig.

I'm not the only one keeping an eye on the theatre entrance. A couple wander over to have a look. Ten minutes to go and it's still roped off.

A moment later, someone disappears under the rope. That looks promising. I hope they are going upstairs to check if they're ready for us up there. And... yup. Sure enough, he's back. He unlocks the rope and reaches over to the bar to grab the bell. "Anyone for the theatre?" he calls out.

There's a general unfolding in the pub's clientele as people get to their feet and try to locate their bags.

I go over to the door.

"One ticket?" he says as he places a mark next to my name on the clipboard. "On the first floor."

There's a small landing half-way up the steps, with a window that's been frosted to reveal the pub's URL, the calling card of a 21st century Jack Frost. I stop to take a photo, but there's someone behind me.

"Sorry," I apologise. I hate getting caught with my camera out.

"That's okay," comes the sweet reply. "Take your time," he says.

But I'm embarrassed and I hurry up the remaining steps to the first floor.

The door to the theatre-space is just around the corner.

Inside, there’s a stage taking up most of the room, with chairs arranged on three sides. That makes it sound like a thrust stage, and I don’t mean that at all. The chairs are in a single row. If anything, I felt like I was picking where to sit at a dinner party. Our host for the evening has neglected to make place cards.

I head for a corner seat. For bag dumping reasons.

I immediately regret this decision.

Two actors are already on stage, and one of them is painting, daubing at a small canvas with a very long brush. I can’t see what she’s working on and I’m immediately desperate to find out.

“The best seating in terms of the view iss this side or that side,” comes a voice as more people traipse in. She points to the two long rows of seats. A woman on the end, discovering that she is in inferior seats, bursts out if her chair and hurries over to the row opposite my own.

I decide to stay where I am.

This must be the first raised platform I've seen used in the round. Certainly in a venue this small. I like it. Does away with those pesky questions of whether you're allowed to walk across the stage. You'd have to be very committed to stage-walking to get up there.

But that does lead to a lot of shuffling as people try to make their way between the chairs and the stage.

A few knocked-knees later, the seats are beginning to fill up. The advice regarding the view stops, and the sad little end row is eventually occupied.

We’re ready to begin.

Just to Sit at Her Table, Silver Hammer & Mirabilis is billed as a trilogy of woman plays, but instead of running one after the other, they decide to play them all at once, cutting between the three monologues, jumping from character to character in a fast-paced exploration of three different women’s lives.

All very different. And yet, curiously, similar.

Apart from the being women thing. That’s a given.

Joined by themes of psychology, religion and art, they each tell their stories, demonstrating duel natures to their personalities. The sex worker using wordplay and double entendres as she talks to her clients, the serial killer’s abstract paintings are influenced by the bodies of her victims, and the dancer reaches a heightened plain of spirituality as she purges herself of sustenance.

They even look similar. Tayla Kenyon, Ellen Patterson, and Sirelyn Raak are all white, blonde, young, and pretty.

They pad around the stage in bare feet, weaving past one-another, talking to the audience, but unseeing of one another.

I can almost imagine them as echoes of each other. The lives unlived. The paths not taken.

“Do you want us to help with the get out?” a woman asks her neighbour as the applause cases the three actors off the stage. I can only presume her neighbour is connected to the show, or that would be a very strange offer. (For those not hot on the theatre lingo, a get out is when… well, it’s literally when everyone gets out - breaking down the set, packing the props, crowbarring the actors away from the bar and leaving the theatre ready for the next set of props and players for their… get in).

He politely declines and they decide to meet up in the pub instead.

I have my own getting out to worry about. I seem to be stuck in my corner.

“Sorry sweetheart,” says the get out lady as she realises I’m blocked in.

Oh, theatre people. They truly are the best creatures in the world.

As I make my way to the door, I remember something and double back. I skirt round the stage until I’m there, standing in front of the easel.

I can definitely sense the dead bodies that went into making this.

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Bells and Whistles

There are some theatres that it is just plain shameful to admit not having visited. You can be a dedicated theatre-goer and not have gone to say… the Lyric (it could almost be argued that a true fan of theatre would not, in fact, have ventured anywhere near the Lyric), but can you imagine saying the same thing about the Royal Court? Or the Young Vic? I would class the Finborough Theatre in that category. Being a regular theatre-goer in London, going to the Finborough is pretty much essential. Not going is like… I don’t know, never having seen Hamlet. it’s such an essential component that it is almost qualifying feature. Can you honestly say you’re into theatre if you haven’t? I mean, really, it’s practically shameful.

Which is why I will never admit to not having been there. Because I absolutely have been there. Now.

I’m downstairs in the pub, waiting in the queue for the box office, which is a small desk towards the back of the bar. I can’t help but admire the t-shirts being worn by the two young people sitting behind it. They are grey marl, with the theatre’s red and black logo printed across the front, and so ugly that they must be deeply cool.

As one rifles through the tickets in search of mine, the other gives me the speech.

“The house is now open,” in the unhurried but practised tones of someone who has said this at least a thousand times before. “If you take up a drink it needs to be in a plastic cup. The loos are downstairs, the theatre is upstairs. And programmes are three pounds.”

Well, that’s everything of importance covered in four sentences.

I decide to avoid the business of the bar and head upstairs. While my ticket may have my name scrawled across the top, the seats are unallocated and I want to bag a good one.

There’s a door just opposite the box office desk. “Toilets & Theatre this way” reads the sign painted over it. I can’t help but smile at the priority given to those to things.

Despite the old school pub vibes of the building itself, the pub downstairs had that clean modern look that I imagine pubs in Scandinavia might have. All white walls, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork. The staircase that would lead me up to the theatre comes as a bit surprise. Red walls. Red balustrades. Photos and flyers are cramped into every available space. This is what the inside the head of a theatrically inclined serial killer must look like.

At the top of the stairs, there’s another cool young person waiting, in one of those grey marl t-shirts. She takes my ticket a rips a tiny tear into the top.

“There's no remittance,” she says, handing my ticket back. “But there is a fifteen-minute interval. Also, there's five people to a bench.”

I look at the benches. Blimey. Five people. That seems a little ambitious. Looks like I’m set for a very cosy evening.

I slide myself to the end of the second row. I don’t want to have to be squeezed up by any latecomers. Plus, there’s a nice gap between me and the wall. Perfect bag-dumping ground.

“Mind if I just put my bag down there?” asks a man in the front row, already heaving his bag over the back of his seat.

I shift mine out of the way.

“I'll put my coat there too,” he says, squashing down his massive puffer into a neat parcel which expands to fill the entire space as soon as he lets it go.

Two people join my row. That’s four of us now.

My new neighbour gets out a notebook and pen. You know what that means, right? Yup. It’s time to play another round of Blogger or Director! My favourite game.

She writes the title of the show: Maggie May. Then underlines it.

Blogger.

That was a short round.

More people are pouring in. Everyone begins shuffling about.

Two men appear. They want to sit together, but there isn’t enough space. They split up. One taking a spare slot on the second row, and then other climbing up to join us in the second.

My neighbour the blogger tries to get me to move along, but there isn’t anywhere left for me to go. “I’m already right at the end,” I say apologetically, but I wriggle over a fraction, just to show willing.

It wasn’t enough.

As the performance started, my new blogger friend did her very best to introduce her elbow to my ribs, constantly jabbing and poking and moving until I almost considered taking a seat on the floor alongside the collection of coats and bags.

You’d think someone who writes about theatre would have learnt how to roll her shoulders in. I just hope her review is worth the irritation.

Bloggers, ey? Who’d have ‘em.

The audience aren’t the only ones having to watch where they put their elbows.

I made a comment in by post about The Bunker, that they could have pushed in fifteen performers onto that stage if they’d had a mind to. But the Finborough went and did it. On a stage the size of my front room, they managed to fit dock workers, policemen, sex workers, a staircase, and a piano.

At one point I counted thirteen actors on stage, all singing and dancing. And that’s not even counting the pianist who was providing all the live music for the evening.

So rambunctious was one dance, Natalie Williams’ Maureen O’Neill’s earring went flying, skittering off out of sight underneath the staircase, and had to be retrieved by one of the blokes, who slipped it into his pocket. The next time Williams appeared on stage, she had both earrings once more and a cracking good line. “That’s disgusting,” she says in her thick Liverpudlian accent as Maggie May admits her love for the firebrand Patrick Casey.

I can’t help but agree.

I don’t know why this musical is called Maggie May, because although it follows her around, it isn’t her story. I anything, it’s about her love interest, Casey. A man she’s been obsessed with her entire adult life, even going so far as to call all her clients: Casey. Without him, she doesn’t seem to have any direction or purpose. She drifts from man to man, waiting for Casey to return, waiting for Casey to take her out, waiting for Casey to fall in love with her, waiting for Casey to finish campaign against the men in suits. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Forever waiting.

In the interval, half the audience tramp down to the bar and those that remain are left with the sound of gulls to keep us company. I get out the programme and have a good read, noticing with delight that the company had rehearsed in the Lantern Arts Centre, which was where I was last night.

 A loud bell stops my reading. At first I thought it the theatre bell, calling the audience back up from the pub, but as it goes on and on, I begin to wonder…

“Is that the fire alarm?” someone in the opposite bank of seats asks.

No-one replies but we’re all looking around now.

The air above the stage-space looks curiously smokey.

“Are you sure it’s not the fire alarm?” comes another voice, sounding more concerned now.

The bell is still ringing.

I look at the door, fully expecting an usher to burst in and tell us to get our arses out of there. But the doorway remains usher-free.

Is this it? Am I going to die in here? I’m feeling very calm for someone who is about to expire from smoke inhalation. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m going to be a theatre ghost, and I’m not made about my soul being trapped in the Finborough. I think I could do good work here. Not sure about my outfit though. I do like this skirt, but I’m not convinced it’s something I want to be stuck in for all eternity. Oh well, too late now to change, I’ll just have to…

The bell stops ringing.

Oh.

Maggie May should have been left in the sixties, where it belonged, but the Finborough… well, it’s gear.

Fenian king  

The cast beat most of the audience

From flat caps to white t-shirts and levis

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Le pain, c'est la vie

“Martha, have you been to the Hen and Chickens before?”

I thought if anyone would have been to the Hen and Chickens, it would be Martha. It’s a theatre pub. And Martha loves a theatre pub.

“No!” she cries, sounding distraught and a little bit ashamed about her lack of Hen and Chickens experience. “I really should. I love theatre pubs.” (Told you). “And it’s in Islington, isn’t it?” (It is).

To be fair, there are a lot of pub theatres in Islington. They’re like curry houses on Brick Lane. Bookshops on Charing Cross Road. Or estate agents in Finchley. Bloody everywhere. You have to be real dedicated to the pub theatre cause to go to all of them.

Thankfully, I am. Well, not specifically to pub theatres. But they are definitely part of my remit for the year. Along with barge theatres, museum theatres, outdoor theatres and all the rest of them. So off I go, negotiating all the roadworks that is happening around Highbury and Islington station, as I try to make my way around the roundabout to there (with a short pause to stick my hands through the barriers so that I could get a photo of the exterior without the decorative addition of plastic railings - I told you: real dedicated).

Back over the road and I’m taking some close up shots of the chalkboards outside. They’re advertising the show. “Tonight!” one proclaims. “Killing Nana 7.30pm £15,” topped by a banner stating “The pub/stage/is you” (that one took me a while to work out).

Two young women walk past, look down at their phones then back up again.

They stop. They’re looking at the two chalkboards. Then back up at the door. I know what they’re thinking. I had the same thought as I was taking my photos. There’s no handle. How on earth does it open.

“Is there another entrance?” one asks. They strike off, heading down the road. But the pub isn’t that big, and a minute later they’re back. This time they try the other direction, eventually finding a smaller, less impressive looking doorway. But while it may lack chalkboards to flank it on either side, it benefits from the presence of a handle.

They go in.

I follow them. Not in a creepy way, you understand. Just in a… I’m-done-procrastinating-with-my-photos-and-now-that-someone-else-has-confirmed-where-the-entrance-is-I-might-as-well-go-in way.

It’s packed inside. I have to squeeze myself through at least two groups just to get far enough inside to see what is going on.

To the left of the bar, and a little behind, is the box office. A little podium tucked away in the shadow of the staircase.

We go about the business of getting my name checked off the list.

“You're going to go upstairs when the bell rings,” says the box office man with a directness that I can only appreciate in a new-to-me venue.

He hands me an admission pass and a freesheet. There’s an unspoken agreement that he doesn’t need to ask if I want one, and I don’t need to trouble him with the request to take one.

I make to put the admission pass in my pocket, but something catches my eye. I turn it over. There, scrawled on the back, are the details of the performance. It’s not an admission pass. It’s a ticket. And a weighty ticket at that. it’s the size of a business card, but if you were to get these printed by Moo, you’d be paying extra for that heavy cardstock (I mentioned this to Martha this morning. “Islington,” was her one word reply. Fair enough).

When the bell rings, there’s a rush to the stairs.

The walls are a rather tasty shade of teal. I want to take a photo but there’s already of queue of people behind me. I just manage to catch a snap of the quaint order not to smoke in the theatre. A sign from a bygone era.

As we step into theatre, the teal is replaced by the more traditional theatre blacks.

It’s warm up here. Really warm. First thing I do is pull off my scarf, jacket and even my cardie. I’m still too warm. I need to sit down.

Clunk.

Oh dear.

The seat shifts under me. As someone who once broke a bed while merely sitting on it, this is rather alarming. I hold myself very still. There is no further movement from the seat. I think I’m safe.

Time to inspect the freesheet. And, oh look. It was written by someone in Hollyoaks.

Aww. That takes me back. I used to love Hollyoaks back when I was of a Hollyoaks watching age. I’d only given a brief glance of the marketing copy before going in, but it did all sound very Hollyoaks. Tortured family dynamics. Shut-ins. Overcrowding. This is going to be brilliant.

 

 

I think this must be the first time that I’ve seen vaping on stage. Cigarettes are still very much de rigour. But really, it’s as quaint as the sign on the stairs. With one action, they’ve instantly made every smoking scene in London look passé.

I wonder what the Hen & Chickens stance on vaping is. I didn’t see any signs disallowing it.

 

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At Home with the Sharky Twins

When did I last wash this skirt? I can’t remember. Was it clean this morning? Oh please god, let it have been clean on this morning.

Not the sort of thoughts to usually go through my head while watching a show, but as an actor gently gnaws on my knee, it’s the only thing I can think about. The ridges of her teeth leave only a line of pressure through the fabric of my (hopefully clean) skirt.

How on earth did I end up like this? With an actor biting down on my knee as gently as a puppy? Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

I was back in Battersea, after my epic run on three of BAC’s spaces on Friday night. I’d spent the whole day lolling around in bed and eating multiple meals composed of eggy-bread buried in icing sugar and was finally beginning to feel myself again.

Still, I wasn’t looking forward to doing that journey again.

Back down the Northern Line, all the way to Waterloo. Up the escalators, into the main concourse. Find a train going to Clapham Junction. Short journey there. Longer walk out of that labyrinth of a station. Walk up Lavender Hill towards BAC, turn a sharp right, then straight down Latchmere Road until I reach the Latchmere Pub.

Are we there yet? Not quite. Still need to negotiate my way across the busy junction so that I’m on the opposite pavement to the pub. Got to get those exterior shots, after all. Then back again. In the pub. Veer right, weaving through all the tables of Saturday-night revellers, then straight up the stairs and… there. We made it.

“Have you been here before?” asked the lady on both office after I gave my name.

“I haven't,” I admitted. I mean… you saw that journey itinerary. I’m a North London gal. If I spend too long south of the river, my haemoglobin levels start to drop.

She looked surprised. Although whether it’s because I have the look of a keen theatre-goer about me, or if it’s the fact that I might be about to faint after breathing in too much Battersea air just getting myself up those stairs, I can’t tell.

“Okay then,” she says, gearing up for what is clearly a practiced speech. “The theatre is just up those stairs,” she says, pointing over to her right where there is a flight of stairs covered in old Theatre 503 posters. “Seating is allocated.” She double checks the screen. “You're in A3. We're completely paperless so you don't need a ticket. It should be in the email we sent you. Did you get an email? I can write it down if you like.”

I did get an email. Lots of emails. Well, two emails. But they were great emails. Theatre 503 are definitely out there, fighting the good fight in making their theatre accessible.

First the confirmation email - with instructions on how to get there (including which entrance to the pub to use - nice touch for the anxious sorts amongst us. Me likey), how to pick up your ticket, and yes - the seat number.

Then comes a welcome email, which includes even more detailed instructions on the getting there (bus routes, stations, and parking) plus the added bonus of all those little things that so often go unspoken in our little club called Theatre. Latecomer rules. Bringing proof for concession tickets. The need to actually go to the box office on arrival.

They also, and this one surprised me, ask you to call the box office if you’re running late. When I saw this I was almost tempted to be late on purpose, just to call and see what happens. But yeah, my anxiety put its foot down on that one, and I turned up in plenty of time.

There’s also a follow up email. But we don’t care about that. We’re still at the box office after all!

“The house should open about 25-past,” continues the box office lady as if I hadn’t just gone on a 200 word tangent about emails. “So, you have time to go down to the pub and get a drink if you like. You are welcome to bring it in, but please no food.”

Didn’t I say Theatre 503 was doing the mostest?

“Can I take one of these?” I ask, noticing the giant pile of freesheets stacked up on the counter. I could. I take one, trying very hard not to notice the playtexts for sale.

That done, I go to sit down. There’s a very squishy looking leather sofa and I have my eyes set on it.

From this angle, deep in the embrace of the very squishy leather sofa, 503 could pass as someone’s living room. A very cool person, with an even cooler flat. But a living room none the less. There’s the squishy sofas (plural, there are two of them), a coffee table within leaning distance, and an equally squishy armchair just off to one side. By now I’m practically playing an imaginary episode of Through the Keyhole (“Who would live in a house like this,” says David Frost in my head as I contemplate the slither of kitchen visible through an open door). The bookshelf filled with playtexts may hint at a resident slightly more obsessed with theatre than the norm if you ignore the sign stating their price (a very reasonable £3.50).

The theatre bell ends my fun. The house for tonight’s performance of Wolfie was now open! A rush of regulars run to the stairs, no doubt still on unallocated seating time. I go with them, not wanting to miss the fun. The stairs creeks pleasingly under our pounding feet.

But I’m forced to stop in the theatre door.

That is no what I expected.

This was no pub-theatre blackbox, with a floor level stage and some battered furniture serving as a set. This theatre had a stage. And not only that, it had a set. A pastel coloured cloud that the two actors were currently using to bounce and turn against, like floating babies in the womb.

As my seat number, A3, might have hinted, I’m sitting in the front row. Not my preferred location, but for five pounds a pop, I could hardly say no.

This might have been a mistake.

Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville, the Sharky twins, as we are soon introduced, have absolutely no respect for the fourth wall. They are determined to tell us their story and they have no qualms about getting us involved.

As they are born, the front row can high-fived to celebrate their arrival into.

Their pockets are full of silver sequins, which they chuck liberally over us to demonstrate their pure, shining joy are being in this surreal world of theirs. Sequins coat my skirt, my boots, the floor. They tumble out of my hair.

You should sparkle for someone, they say. And someone should sparkle for you.

They sparkle for us. Sequins pour of them, littering the stage. They stick to their fingers and eyelashes.

Bubbles fall from the ceiling as the children of the forest tumble from the sky, taken back to the human world by a cynical woodpecker. Then burst on our cheeks with a cold kiss.

Balloons are handed to the audience, and planets are passed back.

Sophie Melville asks for a pen, and an audience member provides, lobbing it over our heads to land on the stage, where it is quickly picked up by Erin Doherty and inserted into her mouth where it is rolled around lavishly (it is later returned. Washed, I hope).

One audience member, deemed to have judgey eyes, is given a pair of sunglasses to contain the judginess. This is the second production of the weekend (and of Battersea) for the performances to insults the audience. I’m still not sure about that. But I’m sure playwright Ross Willis has thought more about this than I have. The judgey-eyed lady puts the glasses on, confused, but willing after a little encouragement from the twins.

And then there was the biting.

Sophie Melville, one of those falling children of the forest, abandoned to the trees for her father, is learning how to be a wolf. She runs, she hunts, she crawls between the stage and the front row, inspecting our legs, sniffing each of us in turn to see what kind of meal we would make.

My knee is deemed interesting enough to be worthy of further inspection. A bite. Gentle. She’s only a cub after all. And her teeth aren’t built for tearing. We all wait while a decision is made. No. My knee will not be dinner that night. She moves on to my neighbour.

I don’t know whether to feel honoured or offended.

Frankly, I think I should probably be grateful just to have survived.

I stumble back out into the night and somehow make my way back up the hill, feeling a little giddy. At the traffic lights, I check my phone.

From my pocket, stuck to my hand, is a round silver sequin. The little sparkle to accompany me home.

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Branching out

So, here's the thing. My marathon has rules. Not many of them. But they rules.Theatres only count if I can get to them by Oyster card. They need to put on actual theatre, or dance, or opera. They need to have publically accessibly performances, and I need to actually watch the show. You know all this. You've read my FAQ.

But there are the rules.

And then there are the rules.

The unofficial ones. The ones I don't publish anywhere because they only live inside my head. The ones that drive my booking decisions.

Throughout the marathon, I've been picking the shows I see with two things in mind. Firstly (and most importantly) I try and go to something that I'm actually interested in. Or the thing I have the most potential to be interested in based on what is on offer. This can be tricky, especially when theatres only announce their season a few months in advance. Do I book this semi-non-awful looking scratch night? Or do I hold out and hope they have some phantasmagorical musical later in the year? The second thing I try to do, is pick a piece that is in keeping with the general artistic values of the theatres. Where possible, I avoid hires (when an outside company pays money to show their work there, rather than being invited to perform by the artistic team at the theatre, or a work that is produced by the theatre itself), and I also avoid things that stand out - not because they look brilliant - but because they are so starkly different to the rest of the programme. If a theatre specialises in say, Restoration comedies, I don’t feel comfortable booking a night of political poetry, just because I fancy a bit of spoken word that week.

This can be tricky.

There are some theatres that almost exclusively programme cabaret or comedy, neither of which count towards my marathon, but are included because every so often they put on a play. Obviously, in these situations, I need to go with the play.

Other times, the options look so completely awful that I cannot, simply Can Not, bring myself to go to them. I hold on, waiting, hoping, begging them to bring something more within the realms of what I'm into, until... thank the lord. Something appears on their website.

So it was with the Rosemary Branch.

Months and months of interactive game nights filled their space, and I just couldn't do it. Not for the marathon. Not for you. Not for nothing. I’m sure they are just brilliant, but to quote the great Elle Woods: “Suffice to say, it was just wrong, all wrong. For me, ya know?”

And then, while doing by fortnightly blitz through all the website of the remaining theatres on my list, I spotted something. A scratch night. Theatre. Plays. Written by women. And it was free! My patience had been rewarded. I booked so fast I broke a nail (true story).

That sorted, I was off to the Rosemary Branch.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. Which is shocking as it’s a pub theatre within walking distance of my work. And I love a pub theatre within walking distance of my work! When talking pub theatres, Islington is the land of Milk & Honey (name of my pub theatre when I open it in Islington). So, I was more than happy to add another one to my mental roster.

After a short stop of a Paul on Upper Street I would my way down through all the wide streets of gorgeous terraced houses towards Shepperton Road. The dogs I pass along the way all crane their heads to get a sniff of the Pavot Poulet baguette I have in my bag. They’re right to. It does smell good (and taste good. Just had it for my lunch while writing this here post. Yum).

Turns out the Rosemary Branch is right next to a park, which would explain the number of four-legged friends I had made that evening.

On their website they claim to be a former music hall. From the outside, I can see no evidence of this. It looks pure London pub to me.

Inside, it’s quiet. Well, it’s early on a Monday evening, so I’m not expecting heaving crowds at the bar.

I look around, trying to work out what sort of pub theatre it is.

Oh yes. I’ve started classifying them!

From what I can tell, there are two sorts of pub theatres. There are the ones where the theatre is fully integrated into the life of the pub. Box Office is set up one end of the bar, and you’re expected to grab a drink and a seat before a bell summons you upstairs (see: The Hope & Anchor). The other keep their activities separated. Box offices are tucked away upstairs with their theatres. Pub patrons and different from theatre patrons, and never the twain will meet (see: The White Bear). Okay, that isn’t fair, I’m sure lots of theatre-goers pop down for a pint after the show, but we’re using broad brushstrokes to paint this picture here. I mean, at the Gate Theatre, a venue which is only above a pub in the very loosest sense, advises the audience that they can bring up a drink from the Prince Albert pub, no problem.

Then there’s the Vaulty Towers, which doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is, but is doing it anyway.

After a quick glance around, I pinned the Rosemary Branch as a one that is divided by a common venue. The door to the theatre (with a helpful large sign handing over it) is closer to the entrance that the bar.

The steps that lurk behind are lit by lined by faerie-lights and old posters, with more signage at the top leading you through the next set of doors (propped open by a heavy bust). If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Rosemary Branch, it’s the signage. It’s everywhere. From arrows guiding you in the right direction, to politely worded messages to advising you to keep away (“Dressing Room. Artists Only”). I liked it immediately. I mean, you know how much bad signage (or even worse: no signage) irritates me, so seeing it done well is incredibly pleasing.

“Do I give my name?” I asked the young lady positioned behind the box office counter.

“How many is it?”

“Just the one.”

With a nod she handed me a small admission token.

“We’ll ring the bell when it’s time to go in,” she says, indicating that I can wait in the next room.

There’s already a small group of young people in what I presume is the pub’s function room. There’s a bar on one end, with a glass drinks dispenser waiting on it, and a stack of glasses nearby. Massive sash windows line up on two sides, and the spaces in between are filed with plants and Tiffany-style lamps. There’s sofas, and armchairs, and a fireplace. It’s a lovely room.

“They didn't even ask my name,” whispers one young person when his friend arrives. By the sounds of it, she’s connected with the show. “They just gave me a ticket.”

“Probably means it hasn't sold very well,” she says with a shrug.

“Oops,” he giggles.

But more people arrive and soon there are little gatherings dotted around the room.

Soon enough the bell sounds and it’s the tinkliest little bell I’ve ever heard. So tinkle it must have brought a few faeries back to life all by itself last night.

I show the woman on the door my admission pass, but she just waves me through, not taking it from me. I still have in it my coat pocket.

“You can sit anywhere,” she says. “But it’s best to sit at the front.”

Choices, choices!

The Rosemary Branch theatre is very small. A true black box. But the unrelenting darkness of the walls is broken up by strings of lights on the ceiling and mismatched cushions on the chairs, give the room the feel of a Bedouin tent. Or at least an overpriced yurt at Glastonbury.

You know my feelings about the front row. But I took her advice to heart and sat in the third.

There’s a fine rake to the seating here, and the third row is just fine.

My row, and the two in front, fill up and I begin to regret my seat choice. The chairs are very close together and my shoulder is getting smushed into a wooden plank nailed to the wall.

Four short plays. All written by women. All acted by women too. All excellent, but with two major standouts to my tired eyes. Tiger Mum by Eva Edo and HoneyBEE by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. Both one-woman shows. Both performed by their writers. But otherwise completely different. A mother looking to protect her son against the world, and a millennial trying to find her place in it. A plaid shirt, and a sequined jumpsuit. A bus stop, and a festival.

Keyed up by exciting lady-theatre, I get up to leave. The rest of the audience looks like they are intent on hanging around. They all know someone in the production and are determined to celebrate.

I squeezed myself between their excited hugs and out I go, walk by the canal, tube it home, and am in bed by 10pm with a cup of tea and a chocolate éclair from Paul.

Life doesn’t get much better than that, my friend, now does it?

No, wait. It does. Apparently the Shrill Voices Showcase wasn’t a one off. It’s part of a series. Which means now I have an opportunity to go back to the faeries’ yurt… next year.

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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

“Are you here for Hopeful Monster?” she asked.

I was.

“25% of the ticket price goes to child.org,” she says, peeling off a large round sticker off an A4 sheet.

“Oh nice,” I say taking it from her.

It’s pink. “I [heart] my mum,” it reads.

I look around, not knowing where to stick it. Not sure I want to wear it on my coat. I leave it flapping around on my fingertips.

I tuck myself away next to the staircase and make friends with a horse’s head wearing a St Paddy’s Day Guinness hat. He doesn’t look overly happy about it, although whether it’s the hat or my need for company that’s distressing him I can’t quite work out.

Soon more people arrive to collect their stickers, each looking more perplexed than the last as they try to work out what to do with it. A man dances around as he bounced his stickered-up hand between coat and scarf as the final home of his sticker. He settles on the front of his hoodie and pats it down on his chest. The look on his face suggests that he has immediate regret.

One woman has it on the back of her hand.

The stickiness on my fingertips is starting to bother me. Without thinking about it, I grab my phone and smooth the sticker down on the back. Just like I would if I were at the Donmar and this was one of the stickers handed out to the fillers’ queue on press night.

I couldn’t see my face, but I imagine it looked just like the man in the hoodie.

Regret. Deep and sorrowful.

My phone is new. So new that I still haven’t managed to buy a case for it.

And now I had a cheap paper sticker stuck to it proclaiming how much I [heart] my mum.

People rush up and down the stairs and I press myself against the wall, out of the way while they lift chairs from unoccupied tables and carry them back up.

A seat cushion slips off one.

“That's not supposed to happen,” laughs the woman as she tries to fix the chair.

“Don't worry, I won’t tell anyone,” I whisper back.

Eventually, the procession of chairs came to an end and we were allowed upstairs.

“It's unreserved seating, but if you can leave the first two rows free for children that would be ideal,” said the person greeting us at the top.

The stage was small. A table, flooded with light from a totem pole of lamps set up on either side. Close proximity would be essential.

I dither next to the third row, trying to decide whether the aisle seat on the short right-hand row would be superior to the aisle seat on the slightly closer left hand row.

“It’s a full house,” calls the usher. “So if you can all move down.”

I panicked, and picked the long row on the left, going right to the end, next to the fireplace.

“A minute later they first two rows are completely filled with grownups.”

I looked around. There was not a single child to be seen. Reminds me of the Puppet Barge in Little Venice. These shows may be made with children in mind, but it takes a childless adult to want to traipse out to these things on a Sunday afternoon.

Now, you know that I don’t write a lot about the actual performance in this blog. That’s not what we’re about at the marathon. But in this case, I wouldn’t have been able to even if I wanted to. Because I didn’t see it.

No, I didn’t have to leave due to a near fainting incident. I assure you, I was in the room and in my seat the entire time.

I just couldn’t see it.

Literally, none of it.

Oh, I occasionally caught a glimpse of a hand when it was lifted far enough off the table to be visible over the heads of the people sitting in front of me. But not enough to establish any kind of storyline. For me, Hopeful Monster was nothing more than 40 minutes of listening to gentle music.

There was a giraffe at one point, I think. And some grass. And a creature which was possibly a pterodactyl. But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what the show was about or what happened in it.

Recently I’ve been playing with the idea of awarding badges to certain theatres. Best Madeleines. Longest queue for the loos. You get the idea. There’s one badge in particular that scratches away at my conscious. Forget the “I [heart] my mum” stickers. If I were going to hand out anything after this trip it would be the “If this were my first trip to the theatre, I would never return.”

 

 

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Pie Squared

"Well, I have no idea what's going on."

I'd just been on a mission to discover where, when, how, and quite possibly, why, that afternoon's show was happening, and I had returned even more confused than when I had left.

Helen, Ellen, and I were at Vaulty Towers. The pub on Lower Marsh Street that looks like it ran away with the circus.

Giant hands, twisted into claws, are mounted over the door, momentarily turning anyone who walks beneath into a puppet. There's a treehouse. And a room that looks like it's just been vacated by a Tarot-toting, crystal ball wielding, fortune teller for being too cliche even for her. And there's a nook primped with yards of pink tulle.

That's where we were. Trust a bunch of dance nerds to find the one spot that makes you feel as if you've got stuck in the laundry pile at The Royal Ballet School.

The Vaulty have a very lax approach to decoration. Anyone can join in. The nook's walls were scrawled with messages, love hearts, and even a few phone numbers. Clearly, the clientele at this pub doesn't like to limit their creative outpourings to the toilets.

It was 4.25, and there was supposed to be a play starting in this place in five minutes. But there was no sign of it.

Nor of the promised pies or pints.

Oh yeah, we were doing the trifecta.

Play Pie Pint is pitched as a lunchtime experience at the Vaulty. For a tenner (excluding booking fee) you turn up, get given a pint, a pie, and a play.

Except there was no sign of any of these things.

I checked my emails, thinking I must have missed something important, but nope. I had nothing beyond the booking confirmation and a pdf of e-tickets. Start time. Address. That was it. We were on our own.

We grabbed our coats and bags and headed to the bar, keeping our eyes out for a sign of... a sign. Something saying "Theatre this way, you dopes," perhaps. Or a little "Box Office" note taped to the bar. Anything to suggest that this pub was not just a pub, but a pub-theatre.

"Shall I just ask at the bar?" said Helen, going off to do just that, as if that was a normal and sensible thing to do in these situations.

A few minutes later, she returned to tell us of the wisdom she had gained.

"It's happening down there," she said, pointing to a door shaped like a zebra.

But of course. We should have guessed. There was even a sign. It said: "no entry."

We stood around awkwardly, checking our phones and the zebra. It was past 4.30, and the zebra was still closed. The play should already have started.

A bell sounded.

"For those here for Play Pie Pint, the pies are at the end of the bar!"

Oh thank the theatre gods, we had not been forsaken.

"Do we just... grab one?" asked Helen.

I didn't know. That seemed to be what was happening. But everyone was holding back.

At last, some brave soul dove in, his hand hovering over the trays of pies.

"What's the name?" asked a woman behind the bar. "Have you booked?"

She ticked us off. Napkins emerged and were plonked down next to the pies. Followed by a box of cutlery. Then a stack of plates. Finally, we were getting somewhere.

"How is it?" asked Ellen as Helen dug in.

Helen shrugged. "It's alright."

"Are we supposed to eat them now, or take them in?" I thought the idea was to have the three ps all together. But the zebra was still very much closed.

"Perhaps this is it," said Helen, indicating the people standing around awkwardly holding pies.

"An immersive experience?" I really hoped not.

"If we were to leave now, I wouldn't be mad," said Ellen. I shot her a pleading look. I did not want to be left there alone.

Thankfully, at that moment, the zebra swung open. It was time to go down. There was no backing out now.

Down a flight of steep, rickety stairs, and into the basement.

Stone walls. Piled up suitcases. Forgotten furniture. And still balancing my pie on its plate.

I was getting flashbacks to that immersive Sweeney Todd in a pie shop.

I could only hope that the worst pies in London were the only thing we had to worry about. If anyone offered me a haircut I was out of there.

The spaces were getting smaller and smaller. A black curtain covered the final entrance. I pulled it open, fully expecting to be greeted by a man wearing a leather apron and covered in blood, but instead, there was a semi-circle of mismatched chairs. We had reached the theatre.

It was tiny. Even by the standards of pub theatres. And the carpet pinned to the ceiling was doing little to insulate us from the pounding music being played in the pub above our heads.

"I like the faerie lights," said Ellen. "I know they're only cheap, but they do brighten a space up."

She wasn't wrong. With the entire ceiling covered in a constellation of tiny twinkling lights, this basement was looking pretty fucking charming.

"You brought your pies with you!" called a woman from the other side of the circle. "I left mine upstairs."

"Oh..." I looked down at my pie. Perhaps we weren't meant to take them with us after all.

"It wasn't cooked," she continued. "I gave it right back. They tried to give me another one, but I wasn't having it."

"Is your's raw?" asked Ellen.

"I don't think so?"

It tasted fine. Not the best pie I've ever had. Not even the best theatre pie I've ever had. But it was alright. I mean, you can't go far wrong with a chicken pie.

Chicken? Good. Pastry? Good. No apparent signs of salmonella? Fucking A.

Finishing the pie did leave me with the small worry of what to do with the plate. I settled on tucking it under my chair and hoping I didn't accidentally end up with gravy on my coat.

"Does anyone know if someone should be here, who isn't?" asked a young lad who turned out to be one of the writers' of the play.

There were still a lot of empty chairs. And there had definitely been more pies upstairs than there were people downstairs. The chairs did eventually fill up, but it occurs to me, that without any form of ticket check other than giving a name in exchange for a pie, there is nothing to stop someone dropping in and seeing a play sans pie. It seems to me that you're paying for the pie and getting the play for free.

Seats filled, pies consumed, and play introduced, we settled down to watch.

Ellen leaned over to me. "Just so you know, this is my nightmare," she said, as the actors took their places.

Oh dear.

Forty minutes later, and my friendship with Ellen hanging in the balance, we applauded.

The company, all composed of Guildhall students were keen to get our feedback. "We'll be upstairs, getting very drunk, because you know.. students, if you want to come and chat." Bless.

"Did you enjoy that?" one of the actors asked the nearest audience member.

"Yes," she replied. "But my pie wasn't cooked at all. I gave it back and they tried to get me to take another one, but I wasn't having it!"

"Right," he said, all blinking earnestness. "Well, we didn't make the pies..."

It was time to make our escape.

Back through the black curtain. Back past the stacks of furniture. Back of the rickety stairs.

As the others made their way outside, I dithered. The tulle-primped nook was empty save for the legions of notes from past patrons. That was my moment. A chance to make a real difference. I would add to the scrawl of notes. A message for the ages. A warning.

"Pies and plays thatta way -> (Bring your own pint)."

I would be a theatre hero. Nay, a theatre god.

But Helen and Ellen were already waiting outside.

And besides, I didn't have a pen.

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The Ruffians on the Stairs

Proving once again that I really can complain about anything, I would like it on record that the Hope Theatre is too close to my work.

I stayed an extra hour in the office, walked as slowly as my legs would allow, took a half-mile detour, popped into Boots, and still managed to arrive with fifteen minutes to spare.

At least that gave me time to wrestle with my phone. In the rain. It's now got to the stage where I can't take a photo at all if it isn't plugged into some form of charger.

Let me tell you, if you haven't stood in the rain, balancing an umbrella on your shoulder, a phone in one hand and a charger in the other, than you have not truly experienced a theatre marathon.

Oh yeah, I'm sure it's possible to do this challenge with fully functional technology at your disposal, but is that really in the spirit of the enterprise? No, my friend. No, it is not.

I mean, sure... you would benefit. Better photos, perhaps even better blog posts. They'd certainly be produced by a less stressed blogger. But if my phone didn't crap out and lose my changes at least twice while writing each of my posts, what on earth would I blame my typos on? Riddle me that.

Perhaps we should consider my terrible photos as an external expression of my inner marathon trauma. An artistic series if you will. We can call it: The Downfall of a Theatre Blogger 251.

Fine, we’ll workshop the title later.

Anyway, yes - sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself there. Running down a path that no one is interested in. Certainly not you.

Let's go back to the image of me, standing in front of the Hope & Anchor Pub, taking photos, in the rain.

No, wait. Let's go even further back. All the way to my detour.

Because the truth is - I lied to you.

It wasn't a detour. Or at least not a planned one. I got lost. Well, not lost exactly. I knew where I was. But where I was wasn't at the Hope.

But Max, I hear you sigh. You literally just said this theatre was close to your work. How did you manage to get lost?

Well, I wasn't lost. As I've already told you. I was just... elsewhere.

I walk past the Hope & Anchor a lot. Exactly because of the whole working nearby thing. So when I headed out to go there, that's exactly what I did. I walked past.

I have a lot on my mind at the moment, and... can I blame the rain? Eh. I'm going to blame the rain. It was coming down pretty strong.

Anyway, I caught myself before I had gone too far. And walked myself back.

I must have been looking a bit bedraggled by that point as the man having a cheeky cigarette by the door almost stumbled in his efforts to open the door for me.

The pub was packed, and it took a fair bit of squeezing between tables to make my way to the box office, positioned at the end of the bar.

“Have you been to the Hope before?” asked the bloke manning the box office lapton after I’d been handed my ticket and bought myself a programme (£1).

Ah. He’d sussed me out. Yes, to my shame, this was the first time I had been to the Hope. Over two years of walking past, and I’d never made it through the doors before.

“Right,” he said. “Well, you'll be heading up the stairs. I'll ring the bell when it's time. Its 60 minutes, no interval. And if you leave you can't come back in.”

Nicely done.

Though I think some of the regulars could have stood to have heard that speech. As a few minutes later, I spotted a group heading upstairs. Not wanting to be left behind, I dropped into line and followed them.

The line stalled at the door.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be up here yet,” came an unseen voice from the top of the stairs.

A queue started forming behind me.

There was no going back now.

We were doing this thing.

Soon the line was winding its way right back down to the pub. I may be a newbie, but this felt very familiar. This was Royal Court Upstairs-style queuing going on right there.

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“I have cheese in my pocket,” said the man behind me.

Not to me, you understand. I was just eavesdropping.

“What a strange admission,” laughed his companion.

A very strange admission indeed, but I didn’t get to hear the explanation for the pocketed cheese as the bell started clanging below.

“The doors are now opening for the Ruffian on the Stair,” called out the box office bloke. I fancied he gave the queue a derisive look but that was probably my imagination. Still, I wouldn’t blame him. There was certainly a collective air of delinquency going on amongst us.

The door finally opened, and we made it upstairs. And after having my ticket ripped (what a joy to actually have a proper ticket getting its stub ripped off. It’s one of those theatrical rituals that is so joyful in its simplicity. A proof of use. Like a stamp getting postmarked) we headed inside.

The stage was so small, the front row looked as if they were part of the set. Like dining table chairs pushed back against the wall because the room is needed for something more important than the business of eating.

The bravery that had gradually been building up this month suddenly evaporated. I headed to the second row, in the darkest corner I could find.

And from my tucked away spot, I inspected my ticket.

I hadn’t given it proper attention before. But the combination of ripping and unreserved seating intrigued me.

It had the logo on it. And the twitter handle. The address and the url.

So far, so standard.

But then on the back:

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“DID YOU KNOW?” it shouted out in all caps (and bold too!). “By purchasing this ticket,” it continued, in a more reasonable font, “you are personally helping to ensure that all actors you see tonight are paid a legal wage. Aren’t you great?”

I preened. I am pretty great.

That was quite the distracting thought though.

Not my greatness. That’s something I have to live with every day. I mean the legal wage bit.

The Hope Theatre is tiny. TINY. And there were three people on stage.

I tried to do the maths, but failed. I… got distracted by the play.

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I’d never seen a Joe Orton work before, and I had really wanted to. I admit it, I was drawn in by story of his demise, a modern-day Christopher Marlowe. But man, that guy could write.

The lady sitting across from me certainly agreed. Her facial expressions as each shocking new line was dropped were magnificent. It was like sitting opposite a live reaction gif. Mouth dropped. Eyebrows raised. She jumped and gasped and jerked back in her seat in perfect time with the action.

I don’t think I have ever loved anyone more than I loved that women during this hour-long play.

May the theatre gods bless and protect you, lady. You are perfect.

Feeling a little woozy from the play and my short-lived love-affair, I had to hold onto the balustrade for balance as I made my way back down the stairs.

The pub was nearly empty now.

I buttoned up my coat, slung on my shawl, and stepped outside.

The rain had stopped by then, and it was snowing.

Garfield isn't the only one

Finding shows to see on Mondays is becoming increasingly difficult.

So many theatres take the day off.

I get it. Mondays are hard enough already what with the waking up and going to work. There’s no need to extend it any longer than it needs to be. I mean, really, what kind of obsessive theatre-goer wants to see a show on a Monday?

Yeah, okay - put your hand down. Didn’t anyone tell you that it was rude to point? It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t really want an answer.

Yes, this obsessive theatre-goer wants to see shows on Mondays. If I’m taking a day off the marathon, it ain’t going to be a work day. What would be the point of that?

Now, if I were a sensible person, I would have made sure to see productions that do actually have Monday shows on Mondays, and Mondays only. But that would have required a level of research that did not quite fit into the slapdash week of planning I managed to accomplish before starting this marathon.

Thank the theatre gods for the Gate Theatre, coming to my rescue when I had a Monday-slot that needed filling up.

They don’t need to give their actors the day off at the moment, because they only work the one show. Their current production, Dear Elizabeth, gets a new pair in for every performance - unrehearsed and unprepared. So Mondays are a-go.

I’d never been to the Gate before, so I made sure I read their website’s Visit section before setting out.

They encourages walking, which I am all about, but as they are a chunk over four miles from my office I don't think I could have made it on time. I felt a bit bad about that, not very in keeping with their Green Gate policy, but what can you do? Anyway, the walking guide they link to no longer exists. No one's checked that link for a while, so they can't be all that committed to the whole thing.

Also, small thing - but they don’t put the address on the same page as the travel instructions? I mean… you do you Gate Theatre, but that doesn’t feel logical to me.

Anyway, I compromised by walking into the West End and then taking the tube from there, and found the venue just fine. The huge yellow Tetris-block of a sign next to the door helped. As did the pink-painted stairs leading up above the Prince Albert pub.

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The dour black website utterly failed to prepare me for the carnival of colour that is the Gate Theatre in person.

Nor the friendliness of the staff.

“Ooo!” cooed the woman on box office when I gave her my name. “That's a nice name.”

I did my usual spiel. It's Scottish. It means small.

She seemed disappointed. I get it. The backstory doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the name.

She rallied. “But in England, it means smiles,” she said, handing me the laminated admission pace.

That's true. It does indeed mean smiles in England. I should really stop explaining my name. It’s such a downer for people in the wake of so much joy.

I changed the subject.

“Can I take one of these?” I asked, pointing to the freesheets fanned out on the counter.

“Oh yes! Help yourself!”

I did.

Situated as it is above a pub, there isn't much in the way of space at the Gate. And what there was was filling up fast.

Turns out there are a lot of people willing to watch a play on a Monday night given half a chance. 

I found a spot by the wall and read my freesheet. No bios. With a new cast every night that might be a bit too much to ask. But that back was interesting.  

"Without public support tickets would cost £51.11." 

They must be quite pleased with this statistic, because it's also printed in the admission pass. 

I felt slightly less outraged that my ticket had cost me £24 (twenty-four pounds! Okay, I'm still outraged by this. Twenty frickin' four pounds for a theatre ticket. I'm not saying that theatres don't deserve the coin, but spending that much on an evening makes me want to boak, it really does).

Thankfully I didn't have much longer to dwell on such matters as the house was opening. 

“Your actors tonight will be Temi Wilkey and Seiriol Davies,” came the announcement.

"As this is the first time they have performed it, we don't know how long it'll be. The performance will be around one hour forty-five minutes, but as they've never done it before it might be a bit longer." He paused for a moment, then said with masterful comic timing: "Not too much longer, we hope." There was a titter from the foyer and we headed towards the doors, ready to score those good seats.

Benches lined both sides of the stage. With a short second and third row on one end. 

After near fainting, immersive theatre in a shed and seeing thirty shows, in thirty venues, in less than a month, I felt unstoppable.

I sat in the front row.

Oof. 

The bench seats were covered in golden velvet.

Let me tell you something, wearing a velvet skirt and sitting on a velvet bench is an experience. And not one that I think was ever meant to be felt by mortal beings.

It was like stroking a cat's belly. Dangerous but irresistible. 

Okay, you can wipe that look off your face right now. I know what you’re thinking - how much velvet does this woman own? Every time she comments on her outfit it's velvet this, and velvet that. Well, my love, I'll tell you. The answer is: a lot. An absolute fuck-tonne, in fact. And thank you for asking. Dresses of course, and last night's skirt, natch. But also jackets and scrunchies and shoes. A shawl. Underwear even. From September until March I am enveloped in velvet. What can I say? It’s warm and fuzzy and I love it.

And there, sitting on velvet benches, and with the golden velvet curtains surrounding us on all sides, I felt quite at home.

I could have sat their all night, quietly luxuriating, but I was awfully distracted by the floor.

The floor? Yes. The floor. Let me tell you about the floor. The floor was sensational. An oil slick of pastels. As if a unicorn had barfed on it. Wait, that's a lazy metaphor. Unicorns are forever barfing and pooping whenever there's a rainbow nearby. Unicorn Land must be a complete bio-hazard by now.

How about: the sheen on a bubble, or mermaid's looking glass, or perhaps a pearl dissolved in vinegar.

You get the idea. It was pink and blue and shiny. 

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I want that floor in my house. I want it rolled out before me wherever I go.

I was not the only one to appreciate it.

We'd been instructed to tuck our bags and coats safely under our benches. But one man went a step further and stowed his boots under the bench as well. He leaned back, stretched out his legs and planted his besocked feet on the mermaid's mirror.

The Gate really does foster a community atmosphere…

In fact, everyone there seemed to be part of the local society.

“You’ll never guess who I just saw,” a young man said to his companion, pouring out the names in a flood of excitement. “I promised we’d save spaces for them.”

Across the way, a woman squealed and ran across the room to greet someone she recognised.

Mwah. Mwah. Kissssessss…

I was beginning to regret my seat choice.

Actors I can deal with. The audience is another matter altogether.

Thankfully by this point the show was beginning and everyone was forced to return to their chosen seats.

Curtains lifted.

Seiriol and Temi, our actors, stepped out.

They hugged and swapped handwritten letters. They apologised for everything they were about to get wrong. They tore into their fellow actor’s letter and read it aloud, full of proclamations on how excited they were to be doing this thing.

They opened the first script packets.

And we were off.

Balloons, toucans, toys, confetti, wine, words, and cornflakes were spilled around in a tribute to messy theatre.

It was brilliant fun.

Bows. Applause.

They had made it. And so had we.

We packed ourselves up crunched out over the cornflakes

“You taking photos of the mess?” asked a man as we were leaving. I couldn't deny it. I was doing just that. “They're going to have to clean that up. And separate it,” he added.

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Yes, I suppose they are going to have to.

The actors may only have to do the one shift, but the backstage crew has to sort this out every single night.

Even on Mondays.

Science fiction, double feature

Is there anything more hedonistic than taking a half-day off work to watch ballet?

No, my friend. There isn’t.

And I can’t even blame the marathon for such an extravagant use of my time.

I’d had this outing planned for months. There was no way I was going to miss ballet-god Rupert Pennefather’s glorious return to the London stage.

Sadly, we all know what they say about god and plans.

But I wasn’t going to let the little matter of an injury and the resulting cast changes get in the way of my self-indulgent afternoon. So, after a quick lunch at my desk, I sauntered down to the London Coliseum. Or rather, the Coli. Everyone calls it the Coli. Or at least, I think everyone does. I certainly do. Perhaps just the pretentious twats who frequent it on the regular use that name. Of which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, I am very much one.

Which leads me to this question… how do I write about a venue that I am this bloody familiar with? One that I even have a charming nickname for? I can’t describe walking around in wide-eyed wonder as I’m sure I would have done if I’d been a newbie. The Coli really is the most extraordinary venue. Over-the-top in almost every aspect. It’s not just the gilt, and the velvet, and the massive stage. These are merely the base layer onto which Frank Matcham built his monument to excess. There are domes. Multiple ones. With stained glass. And stone gargoyles guarding the staircase. Marble balustrades. Mosaic covered ceilings (with umbrella’s to match). Carved wooden doors. Roman iconography. Golden horses. And then topping it all, a spinning globe lit up with the name of the theatre.

It has so much bling, even Elizabeth Taylor would think it a bit gaudy.

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