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.


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


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

Breathe, Maxine.


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


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.


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?



Fuck it. No time for that.


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?”


“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.


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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Scratch that

7pm starts… man, they are a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever walked so fast in my life, racing across London to get to the Soho Theatre in time for my show.

Apologies to everyone who encountered me. And most particularly to the poor guy at the box office who had to deal with my puffed-out mess when I finally got there.

"What are you here for?" he asked, when I finally managed to suck back enough air into my lungs to talk and give him my name.

Now there's a question. Who can even remember anymore? It’s a miracle that I manage to turn up to the right theatre on the correct night. Now they wanted me to remember what I was actually there for?

"Err, the scratch night?" I said, feeling like I was about to lose this quiz.

"The scratch night," he concurred with an approving nod. I'd got that one right!

My prize was one of the trademark Soho tickets. They have to be the most distinctive tickets in London. I certainly haven’t seen anything to match them yet. Bright pink. The colour of Barbie's Dream Car. They’ll sear your retinas right off if you look at them too hard.

I tucked it safely in my bag before too much damage could be done and headed to the bar.

One benefit off 7pm start is that I actually do get to see the bar.

The Soho Theatre’s bar is one of those places that I will always agree is great if anyone brings it up, but the truth is, I've never managed to have a drink in it. It's always been heaving to the point of unbearability every time I've been to see a show.

But yesterday, let the record show, at 6.45, I got a table.

I sprawled out on the banquette and luxuriated in the space. 

I can see why people think this place is nice.

Very comfy.

Very cool.

In a kind of show-posters-wallpapering-the-walls-and-neon-lights kinda way.

All the bright young things of Soho draped themselves over the tables as they talked about all the shows they were working on, generally adding to the aesthetic.


“We should go see this,” said one guy, picking up a flyer to show to girl he was with.

“Oh, yeah. I know him,” she said, jabbing the person pictured on the front of the flyer.

Of course she did.

Five minutes later, a bloke came up and asked to share my table.

Thirty seconds after that, there were three of us perched around the small square.

The dream was shattered. My time was up.

But it was glorious while it lasted.

Oh well.

It was nearly show time anyway.

I made my way back to the foyer.

A small gathering had formed at the bottom of the stairs. Our way bared by one of those thick red ropes, we we corralled on the ground floor.

"Have we got an estimated time of opening?" the usher said into her radio.

The crackly voice on the other end indicated it would be a few more minutes. We waited, stomping about and sighing heavily. The herd was getting restless.

The usher backed her way against the lift, keeping a close eye on us as she clutched at her radio lest we suddenly charge.

Someone tutted. It was 7pm. The show was already running late. 

The radio crackled back into life.


"The show on the third floor is now open. Chinese Arts Now Scratch Night on the top floor is open," she announced with obvious relief as we bolted for the stairs.

With unrestricted seating, it doesn’t pay to be slow.

"Anywhere in the first four rows," called the usher after us as we rushed into the auditorium.

As I dashed past her, I spotted a pile of paper on the bench outside the door. I lunged and grabbed one, not missing a step as I barrelled into the auditorium and dumped myself into a seat, spreading my coat and bag around me - marking my territory.

I plumped for the third row - the first one with a rake. Very important that. As a shorty, I need me a rake. Not that it was a particularly good one. The slight lift the third row offered only meant that I was given a hint of what was happening beyond the head of the person sitting in front of me. It was a concession to the idea of a rake, an acknowledgement that such things exist, rather than a full and proper attempt to give people sitting there any kind of view.

"Even the first paragraph is a lot. It sounds heavy, doesn't it?" said a woman in the row in front, peering through the gloom at her freesheet.

All those black walls, black ceiling, and low lighting, doesn’t make reading easy.

But I gave it a go, inspecting my own freesheet.

It didn’t take me long to spot the name of the venue I work for.

Written incorrectly.

If I would ever dare give a piece of advice to artists it is this, double check your credits before handing over your biography for public consumption. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved when you don’t know how to spell the venues that you’ve performed at. Especially when you return and I have to correct it for you (because I do actually proofread and edit the biogs that come through me… just saying, Soho Theatre…).

And look, I'm not insinuating that poorly proofread paperwork is my hell, but it was rather warm up there… It was almost like I was getting punished for all my complaining about the cold yesterday. “Oh, you want it warm, do you?” laugh the theatre gods. “Don’t worry, we’ll make things real cosy for you.”

I rolled up the sleeves of my jumper, trying to remember what I was wearing underneath. Or if I was in fact wearing anything underneath.

I was. Heattech. Worse luck. As the festival organiser was already giving us the hosuekeeping speech and there was no time to wrestle myself out of my sweater.

“There’ll be a short interval between the two pieces for the changeover. No time to go to the bar but time to pop to the loo.”

I sat still, thinking cold thoughts, and tried to concentrate on the performers instead,

I must say, I wouldn’t usually think somewhere like the Soho, especially their tiny upstairs studio, is the best place for dance, but it was wonderful to be so close to the dancers. Especially in a piece so focused on facial expression and small movement. 

Even working in dance I don't think I've ever got so close outside the confines of the rehearsal room.

What a treat.

As was the horsey helium balloon in the second piece. 

There was a post-show talk, but I wasn’t sticking around for that.

I snuck out, and offered a smile of apology to the dancers who were waiting in the bench outside. 

I’m sure everyone involved was perfectly fascinating, but I wasn’t losing my chance to be in bed by 10pm (literally all my hopes and dreams revolve around this one goal right now).

So off I went. Buzzed out of the door by the bloke on box office. Race back to the tube. Home via a short trip to Tesco. Fixed a hole in my favourite vintage dress. And in bed my 10pm.