“We need to get as many people in as possible,” shouts the TFLer on the Metropolitan line platform at Farringdon.
Those still outside the doors make a push to get in, but nothing’s moving.
We’re tightly packed and there isn’t any more room. Not that this stops the TFLer at Great Portland Street from having a go.
“Move right down!” he orders. “There’s no need to be shy.”
We’ve long moved past shyness inside this train. If we get any closer, Mettie is going to be the surprise popular baby name of 2020.
As we leave central London far behind us, the carriage begins to empty. I even get a seat.
Eventually, we roll into Ickenham. A little frazzled, but still in one piece. Just about.
It’s dark out here. And freezing. I feel like I’ve spent at least a year underground, so I’m just glad to be outside and breathing in fresh air.
According to Citymapper I need to take the Car Park exit out and loop around to get to my theatre for the evening.
There’s a sign on the wall in the station. “Pedestrians using this route as a short cut do so at their own risk.” With that soothing thought in mind, I make my way out to the empty car park, clutching my bag and eyeing up all the shadows with a suspicious glare.
It’s only when I’m slipping past the barriers that I realise that the risk they were referring to was probably getting run over, and not scary murders, as I had, of course, presumed.
Oh well. Either way, I’ve got out alive.
Only problem, I’m now being sent down a lane. And it’s even darker than the car park, if that’s possible. There are definitely murderers lurking down here.
I hurry along, peering through the gloom, trying to make sense of where I am. Is this even London anymore? It doesn’t look like London. London isn’t as empty as this.
Just as I manage to convince myself that I’m being led to some abandoned farmhouse full of dead bodies, I see a sign.
“Compass Theatre,” it says. As if that was a perfectly normal thing to state in the absolute middle of nowhere.
Beyond the sign is another car park. I look around. At the far end is a low building. It’s full of light and warmth.
Just as I’m wondering where the box office is, I spot a sign saying “Box Office,” above the door.
The Compass Theatre is coming in strong on the signage angle. I like it.
In I go. And follow even more signs until I reach the box office desk at the far side.
“Hello!” says the box officer on duty as I approach. I give him my surname and he has a look at the ticket pile. “On the top!” he says, picking up the first one. “All waiting for you.”
Ticket acquired, I wander off to see what else the Compass has on offer.
Lots of lots of poster space, by the looks of it. The walls are covered with a mosaic of frames, advertising all the upcoming shows, bar prices, volunteering opportunities, panto auditions, and… a notice stating that due to staff sickness, wardrobe is not on offer that evening.
I hope the cast took their costumes home with them last night.
Around the corner, there’s a cafe. People sit around flicking through programmes. I realise I need to get me one of those. I look around. There’s a table nearby, covered with an odd arrangement of items which suggest there's a raffle going on, and, more importantly, a small pile of red booklets.
“Are you selling programmes?” I ask one of the young women standing nearby.
“Yup! I am.”
“How much are they?”
“Three pounds!” she answers cheerfully.
“Oh, I have a fiver for once,” I say as I wrestle with the zip on my purse. Thanks to the good programme seller at the Duchess Theatre for that. “Do you have change?”
Transaction done, I find an empty table to sit at and watch as people investigate the prize-items and decide if they want to invest in a raffle ticket.
An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Compass Theatre. This evening’s performance will begin in ten minutes. This house is now open if you’d like to take your seats.”
My fingers are already behind trying to transcribe the voice, but he keeps on going, taking about phones and whatnot, ending with a dark warning about not taking photos in the auditorium. I freeze. Ah. That’s going to be tricky. I hate it when theatres don’t allow photography inside the actual theatre. Got my back right up when The Old Vic banned me from doing it when I was there in August. Seriously irritating. Let’s just hope that the Compass doesn’t have as many ushers inside the auditorium so I can grab a sneaky shot.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” comes the voice again. “The performance will begin in five minutes. Please take your seats.”
Well, looks like it’s time to analyse the staffing situation.
Back round towards the box office, and then off through a door on the side. Two ushers wait within a small vestibule, ready to check tickets.
“C12?” I ask, showing my ticket to the nearest one. “Yup, just through there and…” she motions with her hand, first one way then the other. “Left? Right? … left? Sorry, I don’t know which way the seats go.”
I laugh. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”
If I can’t work out seat numbers by now, my 235th theatre of the year, well, there really is no hope for me now, is there?
I round the seating block, go through the nearest aisle and climb the steps to row C, then squint at the seat numbers.
Fifteen… fourteen… thirteen… twelve. There. That was easy enough.
The gentleman in seat eleven grabs the armrests and starts to heave himself up.
“Don’t worry,” I say, lifting my hand to stop him. “I’m right next to you.”
Jacket off. Glasses on. Phone out.
I look around. There are no ushers in here.
Right, a few quick photos of the space.
Stage. Seats. Side-angle. Done.
I can relax now.
The band are already in place, in a makeshift pit, cordoned off behind a low black wall.
Over on the far side, some bits of paper have been stuck on it.
“Toilets,” “Bar,” “Exit,” they say in turn, with arrows pointing the way.
That is some commitment to signage you got there, Compass Theatre. No space is exempt from direction-duty, not even the temporary orchestra pit.
Okay, one more photo. Just for the signage.
Now I’m done.
The man sitting next to me twists around in his seat to look behind him. "I was so worried they wouldn't have enough people in tonight," he says. "It's such a shame that people don't support the community."
I slink down in my own seat. Not only am I very much not a member of this community, I'm barely a member of my own. I don't think I've ever seen an amdram performance in Finchley. And by 'think,' I mean: 'know.' Because I have definitely never seen an amdram performance in Finchley.
More people come on. A lady stops to touch the pianist on the shoulder as she passes. He jumps and looks round. A second later they're hugging and chatting and it's all rather adorable.
A voice comes over the sound system.
We're about to begin and we need to switch our phones off. After all, this musical we're seeing tonight, is set in the second world war. "When they didn't have mobile phones. So switch them to silent so they don't think bombs are going off."
A woman in my row stabs wildly at her phone screen. "I don't know what I'm doing!" she hisses to her companion.
As the curtain rises, the frantic woman manages to disarm the phone and stow it safely away in her bag.
We begin. Radio Times. A musical set in the Criterion Theatre, where I was, only last week. Except, instead of a slick comedy about a bank robbery (called, if I remember correctly: A Comedy About a Bank Robbery), we have the recording of a radio show, being broadcast live by the BBC as air raid sirens rage all around.
I certainly feel like I'm stuck in a bomb shelter, because it's freezing in here.
My shivering only stops long enough to half-jump out of my seat as my neighbour calls out: "More!" with the final notes of I took My Harp to a Party. "Go on, Marty!”
I manage to make it through to the interval without catching hypothermia, and rush out towards the cafe in search of warmth.
The usher on the door is holding an air raid hat.
"Seemed a good idea at the time," she says, looking at it bleakly.
"There are real ones upstairs you know," says someone else.
I don't hear her reply, but I imagine they are strong words referring him to the signs stating, quite clearly, that wardrobe is closed today.
I reclaim my seat by the window. It's no good. It's just as cold in here.
A young woman goes over to the vending machine to get herself a hot drink.
"Ergh," she growls, loud enough for people to look round. "I want a hot chocolate but it's out and there's no change!"
"What's the problem?" asks a bloke standing nearby, and she explains the situation again.
"Just ask for your money back," he says.
"There's no change!" She's sounding really quite stressed now. I can't blame her. To let yourself believe that you were seconds away from a hot chocolate on a cold night, and then to have that dream snatched away from you... I'd be raging.
"You have to speak to the cafe staff."
"That's really bad, isn't it?" steps in another bloke. He gives the machine a sneak-attack with his fist. It doesn't help.
A staff member appears. "What did you want?" he asks.
"A hot chocolate," she tells him.
"Yeah, there's none," he says, preparing to walk away.
"Yeah," says the girl. "But it's got my money."
"Nothing I can do about that." He pauses. "Oh... Hang on. I'll get someone."
An announcement calling us back to our seats plays over the sound system but there's no way I'm moving when there's a whole three-act production playing out in the cafe.
As the audience makes it's way back to the auditorium, I am glued to my seat.
A key has been found. The machine is open.
"Right, how do I do this now?" says the machine opener, staring at the innards within.
"Is there any hot chocolate?" asks the girl, still intent on living her dream. "Like, at the back?"
"Nah," he says, cracking open the money bit. "Can you identify your fifty pee?"
"It's alright," says the girl, realising the dream is over. "I'll take that one."
And so I am released back the auditorium for the second act.
The usher is now wearing her air raid helmet, standing to attention by the wall and looking hella cute with it.
I snuggle back into my jacket, looking slightly less cute, but at least I'm warm.
The BBC gang are now on air. With spangly costumes and off-colour jokes flying all over the place. But the script hasn't been signed off and the only thing that will keep the plug from being pulled is a heartfelt speech aimed at the audience across the pond.
With the assurance that this speech as very definitely got the Americans on side and in the war, we are sent out into the night.
Pulling my jacket close around me I run across the road, through the car park, back into the station, and onto the platform... where I have to wait a full half-hour for a train. I huddle in the waiting room, close to a radiator that isn't even trying.
I get back to Hammersmith past midnight. And immediately make myself a hot chocolate.
I hope that girl got one too.