I've said this before, but good lord, for a theatre marathon, I'm doing one hell of a lot of running.
I know, you don't have to say it. Less than a month in and I'm already having to repeat myself, but if you will forgive me for just a moment - I need to apologise to everyone who was in Waterloo last night. I was sprinting to catch the train to Richmond, and I may not have been entirely considerate of my fellow travellers.
Thing is, I really couldn't afford to miss that train.
Do you know how far away Richmond is? So bloody far!
There I was, running through the station, my legs getting tangled up in my long dress, and I'm clinging tight onto my shawl, my bag, and my sanity, half-expecting to hear a record scratch to be played through the tannoy and to hear my own voice saying all sardonically: “Yup, that's me. You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…” in true Ferris Bueller mode, when I stopped.
Yup, that is me.
I’ve just remembered that I forgot to buy cough sweets.
I dithered, getting in even more people’s way by my lack of ability to decide.
Did I need them? Really?
My cough wasn’t that bad. I’d managed to go a whole two-and-a-half-hours without spluttering over everyone the previous night.
Except… except… the Orange Tree Theatre is small. And not only is it small, it’s in the round. Seating is on all sides. A little thought-of side-effect of having the stage plonked in the middle of the audience is the lighting - you’re never truly in the dark. You can see everyone else sitting in there. If I coughed, everyone would know exactly who to blame. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that level of shame.
I turned around, rushed over to Boots and bought the damn cough sweets.
(Jakemans’ Honey & Lemon Menthol, by the way. The ones in the big yellow bags. Much recommended).
Then I really did have to sprint.
I don't think I could possibly be doing more running if I was training for an actual marathon. A real one. One with timed running and not running times... sorry.
My brain has dissolved into a Pepto Bismol pink liquid after all that aerobic exercise. I was not built to run. I'm one of life's saunterers.
Still, it was worth it. I made my train.
Got a seat and everything.
And my cough sweets.
I was ready to do this thing.
The Orange Tree is just down the road from Richmond station. I've only been there the once before. To see An Octoroon. Because my friend Helen made me.
I don't usually travel for theatre. Even to Richmond.
Or, rather, I didn't used to travel for theatre. Now I practically live in south London, what with the amount of theatres down there.
The fact that me and Helen are still friends indicates what a good play it was.
Anyway, what I'm saying is, is that I knew what to expect.
The theatre is housed in an old gothic schoolhouse, which made me extra glad that I had dressed as Jane Eyre that morning, in a long, vintage, black velvet dress, with covered buttons and a white lace collar. Think: Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her sassiest.
If you’re thinking that was intentional… it wasn’t actually. I was wearing this massive velvet dress that I can’t run in because I was off to see the Restoration comedy The Double Dealer, and after barely surviving the costume-envy of Gentleman Jack, I wasn’t about to make that mistake again. I was going in with all lace blazing.
"What's the surname?" asked the guy at box office as soon as I was within three feet of the hatch.
"Err," I said, caught off guard. "It's Smiles. S-M-"
I'd only got half way through spelling it before he was already asking for the first line of my address.
I don't think I've ever been processed so fast at box office.
I came away, clutching my ticket, feeling a little dazed by the exchange.
But while the box office may be on some sort of efficiency drive, the programme seller wasn't having with that nonsense.
"Ah!" he said, sounding delighted that someone actually wanted to buy a programme. "That's 3.50." Adding an "excellent," as I handed over a crisp fiver (can fivers said to be crisp now, in their new plasticky format? Slippery perhaps...).
Ticket in one hand and programme in the other, I headed to the bar. Close to the bar. In the general vicinity of the bar, anyway.
The queue was at least ten deep and everything approaching a horizontal surface had been requisitioned, coating the room in a carpet of grey hair and walking aides.
Everyone there was at least a hundred years older than me.
I felt positively youthful standing in the midst of it all.
I slipped into the least densely populated area and tried to stand as still as possible to avoid getting knocked over.
Sales of tea looked strong. There were even tea urns ready to go on the bar. Along with milk and sugar and all the other accoutrements of a good cuppa. With the constant clink of teaspoon against saucer, you might think yourself in a tea room on the Devon coast.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love me a cup of tea. There's nothing better in the world when you're tired, or cold, or sad, or angry, or... well, literally any emotion you care to name. But at the theatre? In proper cups? Where do you even put them? Do you balance the saucer on your knee every time you want to clap? That sounds like a recipe for scalded knees.
I needn't have worried.
The cups were left safely behind at the bar.
The Orange Tree audience knows how to drink a cup down fast. Years of practice, no doubt.
"B10," said the girl on the door as she checked my ticket. "You're just on this middle row here."
"But there may be someone sitting next to you."
Now, I may not have looked as... well-rehearsed as the other audience members heading in, but I am old enough to know that going to the theatre usually involves sitting next to at least one person.
"B11 isn't marked, but there is a space. You may need to squeeze in," she explained.
"Oh, I see," I said, not seeing at all.
B10 turned out to be on the end of a row. A row right next to the staircase that spiralled it's way up to the balcony. A row that was already mostly full, requiring much apologising on my part, and shuffling from my new neighbours as I inched my way past.
When I reached my spot I looked at the space assigned to B10. It looked generous enough for one person, but I couldn't see how another person could possibly fit in, even if we all huddled up and breathed in.
That didn't seem right at all.
The theatre gods were on my side though. And no one came to claim the mythical seat B11.
The cast soon emerged. In full 17th century glory.
I touched my lace collar, checking it was sitting properly.
The ladies swished their heavy skirts as they took the stage.
I smiled at them, as a fellow fab-dress wearer, a deep sympatico stretching out between us.
Then I spotted something. Tied at their waists.
Proper, external, 17th century pockets.
My dress doesn't have pockets.
I stopped preening.
I had been bested once again.
They waved and nodded at the audience, greeting individuals.
"Have you started yet?" asked the man sitting in front of me as an actor passed us on his rounds.
He laughed. "Sort of," he said. "You could say it's a meta theatrical pre-show."
Then a dreadful thought occurred to me.
What if B11 wasn't a seat at all? What if it was a cast member who was going to perch themselves next to me?
The show started. The actors spoke to the audience. They handed over their hats and bid people wear them. They asked questions and shook hands.
Every time they pounded down the staircase I froze.
Please don't sit next to me. Please don't sit next to me.
A fight broke out. A performer reached for the hand of a man sitting in the front row to help pull him free.
There was no way I could cope with that level of audience interaction.
I would die.
I must have sent up a thousand prayers to the theatre gods during that first act. I promised them I'd finish my marathon. That I'd buy programmes. That I'd never come under-stocked with cough sweets. That I'd be the perfect audience member.
Just don't let them sit next to me, I begged.
It worked. They didn't sit next to me.
The theatre gods are cruel. But they are not unreasonable.