Into the Witching Hour

It's 10pm and I'm at home! This is very exciting. Being at home at 10pm is the holy frickin' grail for me right now. Being at home at 10pm means being in my pyjamas, it means cup of tea in bed, with... and I don't want to go crazy here, but what the hell, it's 10pm and I'm at home... biscuits.

At least, that's what it would usually mean.

Tonight however, things aren't going that way.

It's 10pm and I'm at home, and I'm staring at my clothes wondering whether it's socially acceptable to leave the house in pyjamas when you're not a student anymore. Because I've got a show to see this evening. Night, even.

What does one even wear to a midnight matinee? I need to be comfy. That is high on my list of priorities. And warm. Or possibly cool. I don't understand what's happening with the weather at the moment.

So I pick the only outfit that makes any sense to me: a sheer black, ankle length skirt, and a t-shirt that thinks the Hanson brothers were in Nirvana. In my bag I stuff a cardigan (in case it gets cold), a waterproof jacket (in case it rains), and my sunglasses (in case I need to have a nap).

That works.

Right, let's Robert Frost this bitch. I may not have promises to keep, but I sure as fuck have miles to go before I sleep.

I get to London Bridge just after 11. It's Friday night and the streets are thrumming with people not entirely able to walk in straight lines. I'm having a bit of trouble with that myself, the sheer force of my yawns is sending me off course. I am so bloody tired.

Eventually I fall into step behind a couple heading for the Globe. I know they are heading for the Globe because of their shoes. They are both wearing very sensible, and very comfortable-looking shoes. Now usually I'd say they were tourists, and the shoe-choice was a result of all the pavement-trekking they were intent on doing, but they don't stop to gaze in wonder at the ship, apparently docked in the middle of a backstreet, nor do they pause to take a photo of the glittering silhouettes reflected in the Thames. They've seen it all before. The only explanation for these damn ugly shoes, is that they are intent on standing on a hard concrete floor for the next three hours or so. They are Groundlings. I can feel it.

And sure enough, they turn onto New Globe Walk and step below the huge red O hanging overhead.

Stopped at the door to get my bag checked, I lose sight of them as they got lost in the bustle of excited looking people.

No matter. I'm done stalking them.

"Nope!" says the bag checker, spotting someone trying to sneak in a bike. "You're not bringing that in!"

"It folds up!" protests the bike owner, but he's not having it.

"Well, take it back outside and fold it up then. You're not bringing it in like that."

I leave them too it. I need to go pick up my ticket.

There's a bit of a queue, with three people darting about behind the long counter, rushing from the ticket box to the computer to get through everyone as quickly as possible.

Soon enough I've got my ticket and I'm left to find out what is happening with the programme situation.

You see, I don't know what play is being performed tonight.

And for once it's not my dodgy memory to blame.

I don't know what play it'll be, because no one else does either. And no one will, until it comes time to actually start the damn thing.

So, that's the question isn't it: how do you sell a programme for a show that hasn't been decided on yet?

I get in line at the concession desk to find out.

Looks like I'm not the only one intrigued by this puzzle.

The bloke in front of me has got hold of a copy and is paging through the programme with great interest.

I wait.

The programme seller waits.

But the bloke in front is still reading, apparently unaware that a queue has formed behind him.

The programme seller catches my eye and I side-step this avid reader, hand over a fiver, and walk away with my prize.

No time to celebrate quite yet though. I've got another queue that needs joining.

I go upstairs and make my way over to the doors that lead outside, and show my ticket. "Stand wherever you like," says the ticket checker, nodding me through.

It's busy out here. People buying wine and renting cushions from the concession stalls around the outer wall of the theatre. I don't have any time for that nonsense though.

I make my way around the curved wall and towards the door marked Yard & Lower Gallery.

Yup, I'm a Groundling too tonight. I mean, you've got to, haven't you? If you're doing to Globe, might as well do it proper like.

The queue starts here, hugs close around the white walls, back towards the brick building behind. Stops. And then restarts.

I look at the two woman standing several feet from the end of the queue.

"Is this a gap in the queue?" I ask, wagging my hand between the two points.

"Yes, they asked us to leave a break," says one, pointing towards the glass doors that lead to the loos.

"That makes sense," I say, falling into line behind them.

There's not much to do now but wait. I get out the programme to see what I've bought myself.

Turns out, it's programme covering all three play options for tonight. Ah, ha. I see. The show, whatever it is, is being performed by the Globe's touring company. So all that had to do was put the touring programme on sale. Makes sense.

The queue grows and grows, snaking back on itself.

And then the doors open.

I mean...

As first impressions go, Shakespeare's Globe has got it down.

That painted canopy of stars, glowing against the inky black of the midnight sky.

It's a little bit magical.

The first people in line race to take up the prime spots, right in front of the stage. That's what they waited for. And that's their reward.

The front edge of the thrust is all taken up by the time I get in. A second row is already beginning to form.

I have a choice: good view, or leaning space.

It's nearly midnight and if I'm to have any chance of getting through this, I need something to lean on.

I walk to the far end of the stage. There's no one down here. Except one of the red tabarded stewards.

"Is it okay to stand around here?" I ask her.

"Go for it!" she says.

"I just never like being the first..."

"It's always good to be first."

Well, she's not wrong. Being first means that I can tuck myself in next to the stairs that branch off the side of the stage. Not a great view. There's a bloody huge pillar taking up a huge amount of the sight-line, but it does mean that I can wedge myself in between the stage and the steps.

The yard fills up. The seats in the surrounding balconies too, but not nearly as much. You have to be a hardcore fan to want to do Shakespeare in the middle of the night. Those people like to be close to the action. Even if it means they get owie feet in exchange.

A group of girls arrive and take up position next to me. They've wearing glitter on their faces.

"What happens if someone does a speech right there?" asks one of them, pointing at the pillar.

"So what? Get over it," her friend replies.

Music starts. Coming through the Groundlings as the performers make their way to the stage.

They're all wearing variations on the same outfit. Blue and greys, with what looks like a cross between Tudor hose and a pinafore dress, making the lot of them look as if they just escaped from the prep school assembly.

Everyone giggles as Mark Desebrock twangs a strange vibrating instrument, and cheers as Andrius Gaucas does the splits.

Their tune ends, and it's time to pick a play.

How are they going to do it? Well, they're not. We are. The audience.

Oh god. There's going to be shouting, isn't there?

We have a test run.

"I'm going to say a play, and you pretend you really want to see it..." says one of the performers who has introduced himself as Eric.

Everyone cheers and claps.

"Come on," says Beau Holland. "Let's wake up the neighbours: Cinderella!"

More cheering and clapping. A few people pound on the stage to really show their enthusiasm.

But who will be analysing the data? Well, the team have a solution for that.

A beach ball appears.

"The first person to catch it will throw it to the second person. The second person will throw it to the third. The third person will be our independent adjudicator."

Sounds simple enough.

The beach ball is lobbed into the yard. Someone grabs it and bats it onwards. Again it's caught and passed on. And then promptly disappears. Sinking below the line of the crowd.

We all groan.

But no, someone's got it.

"What's your name?" asks Eric (or Eric Sirakian to give him his full name).


"A round of applause for Tash!"

And then it began. The choosing of the play.

"Who wants to see Comedy of Errors?"

The girls next to me scream. They really want to fucking see Comedy of Errors.

I stay silent. I really fucking don't. Fucking hate that play.

Next up...

"Twelfth Night!"

Palms pound on the stage and the night air is filled with hollering.

I join in with the clapping. I do like Twelfth Night. I mean, I've already seen it once this week. But it's a good play. And frankly, anything is better than Comedy of Errors.

"And Pericles!"

You can almost hear the tumbleweed blow through over the sound of polite clapping.

"Come on guys!" says a bloke near me. "Pericles is really good."

Yeah, whatever mate.

A few more people join in. Getting louder and louder as they realise it's all up to them whether they win this thing. The Pericles contingent may be small, but they have some lungs on them.

It's over to Tash now.

"Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles!"

"I think some people want to see Pericles?" she says, doubtfully.

A round of boos is turned on Tash.

Eric and Beau are pressing her for an answer.

"Twelfth Night?"

The girls next to me groan.

"Cinderella!" shouts the Pericles guy.

Someone rushes on stage with an orange robe and holds it out for Evelyn Miller. She's to be our Orsino.

"If music be the food of love, play on..."

And so we're off. My second Twelfth Night of the week.

Actors start to reappear on the stage, now wearing costumes over their pinafores. Andrius' Olivia in a jewelled veil. Mark Desebrock’s Malvolio in a smartly tailored coat. Beau's Sir Andrew in a plush green doublet that I just want to rub my cheek against, it looks so soft.

The characters begin the business of getting themselves all in a tangle.

I'm really glad I've seen this play before. I'm even more glad that I saw it four days ago... or is it five? I can't work it out. Either way, I'm glad. Because my brain is starting to slow down as the cool night air drifts down through the open roof.

I am so fucking tired. I cross my arms on top of the stage and rest my chin on them, allowing the actors' voices to lull me to... nope. Got to stay awake. I haven't fallen asleep in a theatre yet and I'm not about to start now.

I push myself away from the stage, swaying slightly on my feet before I fall against the sturdy side of the steps, and there I stay, sometimes leaning my back against, it, sometimes just my hip. But always in constant contact. May the theatre gods bless and preserve those steps from woodworm for ever more.

"To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early," says Colin Campbell as Sir Toby Belch, staggering up those same steps before throwing a beer over my head and into the yard. Natasha Magigi's Feste follows on behind, belting out a note that blasts my ears.

In the interval, people sink to the ground, putting their knees at risk for the sake of their feet.

I'm about to join them but someone has plonked themselves down on my steps, and if anyone should be sitting on those steps its me.

I go sit next to her.

A steward comes over.

"Sorry ladies, you're not allowed on the stage."

I heave myself back up and find a spare patch of ground to sit on.

I'm worried about what the rough floor will do to my sheer skirt, so I lay down my jacket first, feeling very Walter Raleigh as I do so, and sit on that.

"You need to keep an eye on those stairs," one steward whispers to another, as if we're a litter of naughty puppies who have to be kept away from the Sunday roast.

The young girls next to me seem to have got over their Comedy of Errors loss and are now eating sandwiches.

A steward comes. "Hi ladies," she says to the young girls. "Are you enjoying the show? It's time to get up now."

Shakespeare, it seems, cannot be taken sitting down.

We all struggle to our feet. And it is a struggle. 

It's cold now. Properly cold. I put on my jacket.

My feet aren't too happy about being called on again so soon. I am not wearing ugly-comfy-sensible shoes tonight. They'd be alright, my feet, in my stompy boots, I think. But after 150 theatres they finally gave out on me. A huge crack has split the left soul. So I'm wearing inferior boots. And they're fine. But they are letting me know there's a good possibility that they won't be find in the near to immediate future.

As Cesario gets caught in a scrape after the reappearance of Sebastian, I shift my weight foot to foot, and cross my arms to keep my jacket close.

On stage the characters all work it out. True love reigns. And the company do their closing gig.

But we're not done yet. Mogali Masuku steps forward.

"Thank you, you wonderfully insane people," she says. This gets a cheer. Everyone likes being thought of as slightly insane, don't they? Or at least vaguely eccentric. That is surely most of the appeal of midnight matinee - the ability to shock your friends when you tell them about it afterwards.

"Thank you for playing with us this evening." She pauses. "This morning...?  I don't want to keep you much longer, but this year is the centenary, one hundred years since the birth of Sam Wanamaker." She pauses again for the audience to react. "By the sound of that cheer you haven't heard of him, but he created this beautiful place." She sweeps her arm around to encompass the circular beauty of the Globe. "Without government funding. And it's still like that now. No funding from the government, and we're trying to raise a hundred thousand pounds. The stewards, who are all volunteers by the way, will be standing with buckets. We hope you might throw in a few pennies... or a few pounds, of if you're really tired, perhaps some paper notes too.

"Thanks so much for playing with us tonight and good MORNING!"

And with one final cheer from the audience to chase the actors backstage, they're gone.

And it's time for us to leave too. 

Struggling to stay awake on the night-tube, I finally emerge back in Finchley just as the sky is beginning to lighten. I walk the rest of the way home to the sounds of the dawn chorus, and crash into my pillow face first.

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Exeunt, In Pursuit of Rylance

"Is this for Shakespeare in the Abbey?" someone asks, indicating the queue.

The person positioned at the end of it, a woman wearing a red tabard that makes her look like she's a hospital cleaner who just popped outside for a cheeky cigarette but actually is one of the Shakespeare's Globe crew, nods. "This is for Shakespeare, yes."

"Is it for tickets?"

Tabard-lady's brow creases. "That," she says, with a dramatic pause. "I can't tell you."

The question asker joins the queue anyway. I do too.

"I'm just making sure that people know what they're waiting for so they don't think they're getting into the abbey," continues to Tabard-lady.

I very much hope we are, in fact, getting into the abbey. That's why I'm here. Shakespeare in the Abbey. I'm rather banking on the title being an indication of what I'm getting. Because if not, I won't have a venue to check off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is bloody impressive. The pavements are blocked solid all the way around as tourists try to capture the perfect selfie with the rising towers of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Usually, in order to get those images of a venue's exterior that go up on my Official Theatre List after I've visited them, I'll cross a road so I can fit the entire building within the frame. But there was no chance of that here. I'd have had to catch the ferry to France to get any hope of fitting all of that Gothic goodness in one picture.

I did my best. And I certainly captured a certain something. The essence of the abbey. With a hint of the moody sky above and the swam of tiny little people below.

The queue shifts forward, taking me through a pair of doors so massive a double-decker bus wouldn't even need to fold in its side mirrors to get through.

There's someone only the other side with one of those plastic boxes that are made to keep recipe cards in, but literally no one keeps recipe cards in. The type of person who actually writes recipe cards is the type of person who will also decoupage their own damn box for them. So, instead these boxes are used by theatres to sort the night's tickets ready for pick up.

I give my name, and get my ticket, and a nice recipe for choux buns.

I keep on going. Through the shadowy gate-way and out into the brightness of a large courtyard.

There's another tabard-wearer stationed out here, pointing people in the right direction and handing out free programmes. Which in this case, is left.

I'm already feeling lost.

Westminster Abbey, which looked like such an imposing monolith from the outside, now appears to be a jumble of buildings nestled together for warmth when seen from the back. Like turning over a beautiful piece of embroidery and seeing all the messy stitch-work.

But I don't get lost. There are tabard-wearers at every corner. And then, at the metal gate that will whisk us inside, a very fancy security guard. He has a gold badge on his hat. It matches nicely with the gilding on the gate.

I don't know whether you've ever been before, but Westminster Abbey is fucking old. Like seriously. I mean, I knew it was old. Intellectually. But I don't think you really understand how fucking ancient it fucking it until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

Frickin kings have walked over these stones. And not just any kings. All the damn kings. And the queens. Especially the queens, I imagine. Stilettos can pox-mark a wooden floor within seconds. Just think want they can do with centuries of heel action.

There are grave stones set into the floor that have been walked over so much that their lettering has been smudged into oblivion.

The corridor starts to fill with Shakespeare-seekers, adding to the smudging of the stones beneath our feet.

Especially my feet. I'm not feeling particular light on them today. Top tip from an experienced theatregoer: if you are planning on attending a promenade performance in the evening, don't order a Chinese takeaway for lunch. And definitely don't consume six slices of sesame prawn toast on top of the curry you were convinced was a good idea when your coworker told you she had a free delivery voucher on Uber Eats.

Oh man. That sesame prawn toast is weighing heavy on me.

I really want to sit down, but I'm pretty sure that if I allow myself to do that I might as well snuggle up with one of the skeletons under the stones as I won't be getting up again any time soon.

I start reading the programme in an attempt to distract myself.

There's a welcome note from Mark Rylance. "You are about to meet many much-loved characters from Shakespeare," it reads. Blah blah blah. Whatever Mark. I skip down a few paragraphs. "As if by chance, you will find actors sometimes even when you aren't looking for them." Blimey. Am I finding the actors? Or are they finding me? Is that a threat, Mark Rylance?

"They will be speaking Shakespeare with you in a random, intimate, and improvised manner. In return, you don't have to do anything other than listen, respond if you wish, and move where your heart takes you."

Respond how I wish?

I don't know, man. I'm not big on improvised responses. I think I'll be skipping that one. As for moving where my heart takes me, Mark Rylance - you think my stomach is an idiot? Wait til you meet my heart.

Oh well. There's no backing out now. It's not like I haven't prostrated myself at the altar of immersive Shakespeare before. Might as well do it in an abbey.

Eventually, the doors open, and we slowly begin to filter in. At first I can't work out what the hold up is. I thought this lot would be bursting to get their Shakespeare on. But as it's my turn to walk up the stone steps and pass through the ancient wooden door, I finally understand. It's hard to move with your neck craned up as far as it will go, gazing at all the wonders of that spectacular vaulted ceiling, hundreds of feet above you. And then, just as the crick is about to become permanent, my eyes lower, following the lines of the fluted stone, down the walls, past the windows, circling around all the impossibly delicate looking twiddly carvings and then finally back to earth, and those uneven flagstones.

I keep my eyes on the flagstones. I can handle the flagstones. Focusing on them feels right. They're about level with us mortals. I feel comfortable with the flagstones. I understand the flagstones. Worn by the years and carrying the load of too many people.

I wonder how Mark Rylance would feel about me standing here, communing with the flagstones. Somehow, I don't think this is what he meant by "move where your heart takes you." For a start, I'm not moving.

Everyone is else. Now that the initial shock of this grand old building has worn off, people are scattering in every direction, in search of Shakespeare.

I turn left. Attracted by the pretty blue colour of the backing behind the rows of seats in what is, according to the programme, called the Quire.

I pass under a golden arch and then the abbey opens out before me into an impossible high and improbably wide space.

Scientist's Corner is on the right, and there's a small group over there inspecting all the carved memorials on the walls. But there's an even bigger group up ahead. A huge circle gathered around two actors. A man and a woman. I get closer, drawn by their voices.

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand," says Romeo. "This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

He kisses her.

Goodness. Is that allowed? In a church?

A little girl dressed head to foot in pink covers her eyes and presses her face into her mother's leg.

Her mother laughs and strokes the girl's hair.

They go through the rest of the scene. The girl slaps her hands over her scandalised eyes as lovers kiss again.

"You kiss by the book," says Juliet, before rushing out of the circle and off towards the Quire. A grinning Romeo follows close behind.

Just as the circle begins to disband, another pair emerge, as if from the crowd.

I don't recognise this scene. I can't tell what's going on. I decide to follow Mark Rylance's advice and move on.

There's a smaller gathering further back. Only ten or so people have made it all the way down here. There's one actor, dressed as an RAF officer and speaking so quietly he's almost drowned out by the pair near Scientists' Corner.

He's holding a toy plane.

He looks up and I see his face.

It's only Mark bloody Rylance.

He's doing Richard III. I've seen him do Richard III. But not like this. Not so softly. So gently. So damn close.

He walks towards us, reaches out, and strokes a woman's cheek.

She looks like she's about to faint. Or possibly implode.

Before she manages either, he moves away, walking around a grave. I look down. It's the unknown soldier, surrounded by a garland of paper poppies.

Rylance knees down next to it, flying his toy plan over the inscription.

He pauses. Silence.

And then he walks away.

I decide it's time for me to move on as well.

I've seen something in the programme maps and I want to check it out.

Back through the Quire, across the Lantern, through the North Transept, pausing for a moment to peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had to stand on my tippy-toes to catch a glimpse), up a short flight of stone steps, and then through a small and utterly unremarkable looking door. So unremarkable, I thought I might have taken a wrong turn, and was heading into some side office, or possibly an ancient cleaning cupboard. But no, the award stone corridor ends and I emerge into a palace of white marble. Every inch of the walls is carved into thousands of fluted channels and intricate flowers. And in the centre, a massive black tomb, surrounded by black railings, decorated with gold roses and initials.

I recognise the initials. Its the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

There's an actor in here too. She's dressed in khakis. I don't know what she's reciting. It's not terribly interesting. I wait for her to finish and go away, and then plunge forward to inspect the tomb.

There's a stone effigy laid out on the tomb. A white marble head, wearing a white marble ruff, resting on a white marble pillow. She's wearing a crown. It doesn't look very comfortable.

I look around. I'm alone. "Ignore the haters," I whisper. "Donizetti was a moron."

That's a lie. I don't do that. But I think it. Very hard.

I check the programme. My next stop was on the other side of Lady Chapel.

I squeeze myself through the crowds.

I can't even get into this room.

I wait, as an endless procession of slow-moving people files out.

I must have just missed a performance.

Eventually, the clown-car joke comes to an end and I'm able to enter the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Another marble effigy. Wearing another marble ruff. Resting on another marble pillow. The only difference between the two is the lack of a crown.

Even in death, they are the subject of comparison.

I look around for a sign as to why Mary Stuart is buried in London, but there's nothing.

That done, it was time for more Shakespeare. It didn't take me long to find it. In the next tomb is a young woman, dressed in a long blue gown. She's crying, gazing at a man with beseeching eyes. He looks really uncomfortable. His wife is finding it hilarious.

I see the same actor a few minutes later. She's not wearing the blue gown anymore. She's stripped down to a white shift. She's carrying what looks like a bunch of meadow grass and wandering around as if half in a dream. She stops a woman, and hands her a stem.

That must be Ophelia I think, hanging back to watch her with a professional interest.

She walks past me and catches my eye. She does not give me one of her meadow grasses.

I walk around again, catching sections of The Dream and Taming of the Shrew as I go. Young people wearing red or white roses circle the abbey, muttering about those blasted Montagues or Capulets as they go. Occasionally I see them sitting down with an audience member resting their feet on one of the chairs around the edges. Further in Ib spot two of them flirting with a woman via the medium of a sonnet - bouncing the rhyming couplets between the two of them as they take it in turns trying to win her hand and mock each other's attempts.

I'm retracing my steps back to the tombs. I fancy another look at Good Queen Bess. As I make my way, Martha Plimpton tries to rush past me with a basket, and asks me very sweetly to move aside.

I circle back round to the Quire. There's a huge crowd. As I get closer I can see why. There's Mark Rylance. He's doing a scene with Martha Plimpton and the basket.

It's Winter's Tale.

As they finish and hurry off and man sighs. "He's gone again," he says, before starting off after Rylance. He's not the only one. It looks like Rylance is now the head of a convoy of adoring fans.

I decide not to go off in pursuit.

But a minute later I'm bumping into them again. Rylance, Plimpton and the basket, at the unknown soldier's grave.

A trumpet sounds in the distance.

"Something is happening," says Plimpton, looking at us all. "Come," she says urging us forward a few steps, before turning around to stop us.

The Montagues and Capulet's come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see," she asks someone, before channelling a space and pushing them through to the front.

Rylance is doing the same.

He reaches deep into the crowd and pulls out an old lady. Her friend follows behind, taping her on the shoulder, her face scrunched up in glee. This is their moment. The rock star yanking them up on stage. The pair of them will be talking about that-time-Mark-Rylance-pulled-her-out-of-the-crowd for years to come.

Plimpton is now gesturing that the audience members in the front should sit in the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulet's are batteling with words. Not Shakespeare's though. These are original words. They urge us all to shake hands and make friends. The actors walk around our circle, clasping the audience's hands as they do so, before leading a procession, out through the huge doors.

A song strikes up. And Pharrell Williams' Happy chases us out into the last of the day's sunshine.

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Swoon-worthy theatre

This is not the blog post that I had intended to write.

I had other ideas entirely.

I was going to the next stop on my marathon with a friend. One who is a regular theatre-goer. We had dinner, over at Porky’s, quite possibly the least vegetarian place in existence, and even better, within full-bellied staggering distance of the Globe complex where we would be spending the remainder of the evening.

And while I was busy dribbling mayo and crumbs down the front of my favourite dress, Helen was busy dropping interesting thoughts about the art-form we both love so much. She's very clever, you see.

As an example, when mentioning the gender-swapped Dr Faustus currently playing at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, my reaction on hearing about the girl-kissing was to share how much hotter I found that than hetero-normative theatrical love scenes. Her's was to muse on how they made one look again at a well-trodden tale.

"Ah, yes. That too," I said, nodding along.

See? She’s very clever. An intellectual even.

So, I was sure that she would have lots of interesting things to say that I could... borrow... for my blog post.

That was the plan at least. 

Events, however, rather got in the way.

After finishing up our meal (and me having a quick brush down of my dress - everything sticks to velvet), we headed across the road to the theatre. We were watching the Dark Night of the Soul, a collection of new plays written in response to the same Dr Faustus that had provoked my previous, embarrassing, admission.

"Free programme," offered an usher, holding up a couple of said free programmes to show us.

Absolutely, yes please.

I can never resist a free programme. I might have even said that: “I can never resist a free programme.”

Especially not one as nice as this. No A4 freesheets run off on the photocopier here. There are pages and pages, with proper artwork and beautiful typesetting and… oh, I’m quite overcome just flicking through it again as I write this.

Such rapture extended all the way up the stairs and into the theatre itself.

I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance of stepping out of 2019 and into a space transported over from a previous age. And the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is no less startling even if you expect it.

The white hallway and the bright electric lights are left behind you as you are enveloped by shadows and candlelight.

We took our spaces. Right at the top, balancing on the narrowest of platforms, high above the pit. Spots chosen in a concession to my floundering bank balance. Once bags and coats had been dealt with, there wasn’t much room for feet to be placed.

“It’s a beautiful space, but the sightlines are terrible,” Helen had commented before we went in.

She wasn’t wrong.

It is a beautiful space.

And the sightlines are terrible.

Tucked up against the wall you don’t get much of a view of the stage. But there are compensations.

The ceiling, painted with the images of the skies that they hid, were mere inches above our heads, allowing close inspection of the golden constellations scattered across the angel-strewn heavens.


The curtains leading out into the modern world were drawn shut, and we were left alone in the candlelight, cut off from the outside world.

As the first play started, our row settled into a common stance - arms resting on the bar before us, bums braced against the wall behind, feet positioned wherever our belongings allowed.

The warmth of the candles wafted up, brushing our cheeks.

I leant back, enjoying the feel of the cool walls through the back of my dress.

But the lure of the play was too much and I was soon back on the bar, leaning forward to catch what glimpses of the actors were available.

The air grew hotter.

I ran my finger inside the neck of my high neck of my dress. The satin-frilled collar didn’t allow much in the way of air to get through.

I settled on unbuttoning the cuffs of my sleeves and rolling them as far back as they would go.

That helped.

For a minute or so.

Could I unzip my dress? No one was behind me. I contemplated the acrobatics needed to reach my zip in such a confined space. Impossible... And let's be real here... super weird.

If I could just make it to the end of the play, I could try and grab one of the empty seats, I told myself. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if I was able to sit down.

I was sweating. Heat rushed up and down my body. My head swam.

I was going to faint. Or throw up.

I didn’t know which was worse.

It couldn’t be long now. These plays were short, weren’t they?

The air grew thick, condensing over the flames below until it was impossible to breath.

I had to get out of there.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman next to me.

With a whispered warning about the positioning of her bag, she slipped out of the row and let me past.

“I’m going to faint,” I announced to the usher. I really was.

She swept back the curtain and escorted me outside.

The cool air of the corridor flooded into my lungs.

I breathed it in greedily.

“This way,” she said, leading me back into the modern world. “This lady was feeling faint,” she explained to the ushers waiting out in the upper gallery foyer.

They lept up, sitting me down in a chair and fetching me a glass of water as I fanned myself with my hand.

“Sip that slowly,” said one, wearing a top that indicated she was a first aider.

I did my best, but the urge to tip it all back in one was almost overwhelming.

As the internal combustion engine in my chest gradually lost steam, I began to gather my thoughts.

The first of which, I am ashamed to admit, was: wow, this is quality blog content going on right now. My second, no less cerebral, was: I wonder if I'll make it into the show reports. I've always wanted to be in a show report.

They are such good fun to read.

It would be the audience member equivalent of having a character in a play based on you (quality call back to one of the night’s plays - Katie Hims’ Three Minutes After Midnight, right there).

Do we all know what show reports are? I feel if you are reading this blog you probably do. But just in case, they are basically a debrief on everything that happened that evening. Props that failed. Lines fluffed. Entrances missed. Jokes that didn’t land. Audience members who fainted. You get the idea.

“Here,” said the first aider, grabbing one of the free programmes and fanning me with it until I was back in the real world and not thinking about show reports. We laughed. “How are you feeling now?”

“Warm,” I said. But not likely to faint. Or throw up. Which was a relief. “I think I chose the wrong outfit for this theatre,” I said, smoothing down my velvet dress.

“Yes, I always stick to t-shirts when I’m working in there.”

“Yeah, this was a mistake… I’ve even got heattech under here.”

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, clearly horrified. “You can take it off. There are loos just through there, if you like.”

That sounded like a good idea.

I headed where she pointed, got lost, but then managed to find the loos anyway.

They were gloriously cool. And empty.

I managed to wrestle my zip down, remove the blasted heattech, and then put myself back together again.

I left my cuffs unbuttoned though, and repaired to the sink where I ran cold water over my wrists.

I felt so much better.

That was, until I spotted my reflection. 

Good lord, I was a sweaty mess.  

I'd left my bag in the theatre. I had no way if repairing it. 

Oh well. 

As I was leaving, I saw my first aider chatting to the duty manager, asking about getting the heat down in the theatre.

I slinked away, ashamed at the chaos I was causing. 

“You can sit down over here and watch,” said the usher who was still posted upstairs. She waved me into a seat and indicated the screen showing the live feed of what was going on inside the theatre. “I’m afraid the volume can’t go any higher,” she added as an apology for the poor sound quality.


“Do you have a programme?” she asked.

“I do.”

“You can have another if you like. Follow what’s going on.”

For the first time in my life, I turned down the offer of a programme. Just like when you’re car-sick, I believe it’s better not to read when you’re feeling queasy. All that looking down and focusing. Not good.

We sat together and watched.

A few minutes later the first aider returned, and they switched places.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, full of concern.

“Much better.”

“Fancy heading back in?”

I absolutely did. Mama didn’t raise no quitters.

“The play's almost over. When the angel comes out, I’ll take you back in.”

We waited, watching the screens. Eventually a winged figure emerged from the doors behind the stage. An angel.

She led me back in, handing me over to the usher on the door.


“You can sit over there,” she said, pointing to a vacant spot on the end of a bench.

The view from there was marvellous. The mirror-like stage glowed under the light of the candles.

I looked back at Helen, who was still stoically standing in her five-pound spot. 

I probably should have sprung for a better ticket. 

Almost fainting is certainly one way to get a free upgrade, but perhaps not a route I would recommend following.