I went off book last night. Or rather, off spreadsheet.
I was meant to be going to see a play about a man on the brink of suicide. It was all planned and marked up.
Wednesday / 16 January 2019 / Evening / The Loop / Lion and Unicorn Theatre.
I’d logged that at least a week ago. But when Wednesday morning dawned and I still hadn’t bought a ticket I knew that I couldn’t face it. I needed something more upbeat. Something with songs perhaps. So, I shuffled things around and decided to go see a musical about a girl with a massive, disfiguring scar on her face, chasing after a miracle that’s bound to let her down. Much more uplifting.
Now unconstrained by spreadsheets, I headed into the West End. Or rather Charing Cross. Or, even more specially, Charing Cross Station. Well, under it at least.
I have a soft spot from sub-station theatres. 17 days into my marathon and The Union Theatre is still ranking as my number one theatre experience (followed briskly by the Playhouse and the Brockley Jack. Not that it's a competition you understand. Except it kinda is). There’s something about hearing a train rumbling on overhead that makes a play feel so much more epic. It’s as if every production is set within a permanent thunder storm.
Both under railway arches they may be, but the Charing Cross Theatre is no wee little 75-seater. In the grand throw down between Charing Cross the the Union’s Waterloo, the north-of-the-river station would win tracks-down. On size alone, you understand. You could fit at least four Unions within the Charing Cross Theatre’s auditorium.
Everything seemed bigger at the Charing Cross.
As I pottered about in the foyer (taking mirror selfies, you know how it is), I spied the usher’s snack tray. Bags of Malteasers lined up next to king size Snickers and Mars bars. Holy shit on a cracker. Those are not theatre-snacks to be nibbled on during an interval. They are proper petrol-station snacks, built to sustain the a long road-trip.
The Charing Cross Theatre ain't playing no games.
They were West End (or at least, West End-adjacent) and they were ready to compete with the big-boys. This was no fringe venue. And they weren’t going to be confused with one. No matter what type of public transportation system was sitting on top of them, rattling their bones.
They even have a proper box office. Staffed by someone who seemed to have been hired for the sole reason that she radiated loveliness. Made all the lovelier when she handed me a proper ticket. One that I could take home with me. You see? West End. Definitely.
But then something caught my eye. There, on the box office counter. Something bright. Very bright. Orange even. Surely the brightest and most eye-catching of colours. And made of paper, which is always sure to get my attention.
“Can I take one of these?” I asked.
“Of course!” said the lovely box office lady.
It was a cast sheet.
I looked around, checking for any programme sellers. Nope. No one. This was all we got.
So, maybe they are a fringe theatre then? If you squint and forget that the Strand isn’t just around the corner.
It makes sense. West End playhouses tend to been drinking great Edwardian things. Yes, there are outlets, but when you picture a West End theatre, there tends to be more in the way of curly architecture, and less, well... trains.
I had to do more investigating.
I wandered around, gathering evidence. West End or Fringe. It was hard to tell. It was all so conflicting.
Over my head there was a massive chandelier: West End.
But behind me was a strange arcade machine shoved in the corner: Fringe.
The ushers were wearing natty little waistcoats: West End.
But… what’s that?
Is that a proper, physical, theatre bell?
I positioned myself near it, determined to catch it in action, but when the bing bongs came they arrived over a tannoy - with more than a little flavour of Hi-de-Hi!.
That was disappointing. And it didn’t help settle the matter of West End or Fringe either way. Further disappointment.
With a heavy heart and a confused head, I decided it was time to go downstairs and take my seat. Hopefully the auditorium would hold to key to solving this mystery.
“Nice coat you got there,” said the usher taking my ticket.
“Oh, well, thank you,” I managed to reply, feeling a little flustered. It is a nice coat. There’s no denying it. But I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my outfit by an usher before
How do we even classify that? Definitely not West End.
Still preening, I took my seat. Row X. Ticket’s ain’t cheap at the Charing Cross (they have West End prices, that’s for sure).
But with the stage in the middle of the auditorium, and with seating either side, I may have been in the back row, but there were only 11 more in front of me.
And, even better, a tech desk directly behind. Like, literally, right behind me head. That was exciting. I love a tech desk.
I was looking forward to sneaking glances behind me during the show.
“So sorry, can everyone in this row move forward,” said an usher, leaning into the back row. My row.
We all blinked at him in incomprehension.
“If you could all just move forward, exactly as you are, to this row,” he added, indicating the empty row just in front of us.
It was happening. I was being moved out of my row. Just like with that bloke in the Vaudeville. I had seen how it should be done, and now it was time to make a stand. Or rather to not make a stand. I would sit. The revolution may have been slow to get started, but I would do my part. This was it. It was our time. We were going to rise up against our oppressors, the ushers.
I stood up, ready to face down the usher.
I looked at his smiling face and refused to break.
But then I remembered the coat-comment from earlier. And the lovely box office lady.
Reader, I’m ashamed to admit it. But I moved.
The seats in front were a little bit better. And I was still feeling pretty glowy after my compliment.
Glowy people don't start rebellions. They're too busy being smug and happy.
Revolution would need to wait for another day.
Our vacated seats were soon filled by the creative team, blocking my view of the tech desk.
My glow faded.
I crossed my arms and waggled my foot with irritation. The show better be good, I thought to myself. I was going to have to sit there, for a full hundred minutes, no interval, and have nothing to watch but the performers.
Lights dimmed. The cast emerged. And they started singing.
Over-amped, I sneered to myself.
I was determined not to have a good time.
And then I forgot. Forgot about being made to move. And the lack of a tech-desk view. Forgot about the creatives sitting behind me, until…
One of the groaned.
Oh dear. Something had gone wrong.
I scanned the stage. I hadn’t seen anything go awry. Perhaps this seat-stealing creative just had a stomach ache.
I lost myself in the show once more.
The cast sang on, still nothing visibly wrong.
His stomach ache must have been really bad. I wondered if I should offered the use of an aspirin. But then I remembered I was supposed to be annoyed with them, so decided to let him suffer through without medical assistance.
Besides, I was enjoying the show. And didn’t want to be distracted.
By the time I emerged back into Cavern Street shopping arcade I still hadn’t come up with the answer to my question: West End or Fringe?
Now, looking back on it all, I’ve come to a conclusion: I am not qualified to make such decisions.
Who cares if it belongs to the bright lights of the West End, or runs with the cool cats of the Fringe? Surely all that matters is the theatre, and what it makes us feel as we come together to form the single, living, breathing organism that is: the audience... ergh. That's theatre wankery if ever I heard it.
Fine. I'm calling it. It's West End. Done.