Back before I started this marathon, I really liked the Soho Theatre. Well, I had positive feelings towards it anyway. What with its neon lights in the bar, and the bright pink logo. It’s cool. It made me feel cool just being there. Not that I went all that often. But every now and then there’d be a show, say… a new Philip Ridley, or a Jack Thorne, that would draw me in. The tickets are cheap, so there was nothing to stop me going. So i’d buy one, trot off to Dean Street, watch the show, enjoy it, and then leave happy enough. And I’d soon return to my default state of never really thinking about the Soho except when they have an interesting show on.
But this marathon has changed the way I look at things. With my focus now away from the work, I see theatres differently. And I have to be honest, I don’t think I actually like the Soho all that much anymore.
I’d go so far as to say I actively dislike the Soho.
Enough that I don’t really want to go in.
Here I am, standing on the pavement of Dean Street, watching a film crew chivvy people off of the road and away from thick ropes of electrical cables, and I really don’t want to go in.
I message Helen. “I’m here but gonna go for a little walk,” I say, turning around and slipping into a side street.
A few minutes later, a message pops up on my phone. “Ok. Do you want a bubble tea?”
Well, obviously I do.
I lean against a lamppost to message her back in the affirmative. And then wait. Two minutes. Three minutes. How long does it take to order a bubble tea?
After five minutes I figure it’s time to head back.
The film crew are still standing in the middle of the road with their broad shoulders and hi-vis jackets, eyeing up anyone who dares step over their cables.
I hop over them, and make my way into the entrance.
I can barely get through the door. The queue at the box office is so long its mingling with the mass of people trying to press themselves into the bar. I hang back, waiting for it to clear.
“Next?” calls one of the ladies behind the box office.
I look to someone standing nearby. I make a “are you waiting?” style gesture to her. She doesn’t look up.
“Yes? Next!” shouts the box officer, sounding more than a little pissed off.
And so it begins.
“The surname’s Smiles,” I say, going up to the counter.
“Show?” she snaps.
“Cocoon,” I say, reflecting her rapped-out style. The show is called Cocoon Central Dance Team: The Garden Party, but there’s no time for multi-syllable phrases at the Soho.
She pulls a ream of tickets free from the Cocoon box.
“And the postcode?”
I give it, and she rips away the receipt and all the additional ticket elements the printers churn out, before handing me the twin pink slips.
I turn around and almost walk into someone.
“Do you like watermelon,” she says, holding out a pink cup so bright it’s almost Soho Theatre branded.
I cringe. “I hate watermelon,” I admit.
With a nod, she swaps the cup on offer. This one is brown.
I fumble around with my phone and tickets.
Helen watches me for a second. “Hang on,” she says. “Let me put the straw in for you.”
Bless Helen. She knows I can’t handle things as complicated as sticking a straw through a foil top.
“Shall we go outside?” I ask, with my newly-strawed cup in hand. “Oh my god, this is really good.”
It is really good. The boba are super chewy and the brown liquid smooth and sweet. Just want I needed after a hard day working down the print-mines.
“It’s black sugar,” explains Helen as we step onto the pavement.
“Like burnt sugar?”
Helen gives me a look. It’s a very serious look. “No,” she says. “Black sugar is all the rage in Asia. Everything is black sugar flavour. It’s not burnt sugar. It’s black sugar…. White people are so ignorant.”
I mean, I can’t fault her there.
Black or burnt, I suck it down greedily. It really is good.
I leave it to the last possible moment, but at 7.27pm I have to admit it’s time to go back inside.
We’re in the Downstairs theatre tonight. The Soho Theatre’s cabaret space. I even booked us spots at one of the cabaret table, which are a whole two pounds more expensive than the seats at the back.
“Can you finish your drinks please?” says the front of houser guarding the stairs down to the basement.
“Is there a bin anywhere?” asks Helen.
“Round the corner,” says the front of houser pointing back towards the box office.
Helen goes round the corner, finding the bin tucked up under the counter. I follow behind, getting a mouthful of boba in my efforts to finish my drink before chucking it. I bend down and push the cup into the very inconveniently located bin. It’s already full to the brim. I don’t envy the person who has to empty that.
Back to the stairwell, and I show the front of houser our tickets. She waves us downstairs.
A neon sign greets us: Soho Theatre Downstairs it screams in blazing blue, stark against the dark walls.
No white paint and pink accents down here. It all red and black and slightly seedy. Photos of past performers on stage line the way down. I spot Tim Minchin amongst the faces as we race downstairs.
There’s another ticket checker down here.
“Fourth row back, two tables in,” she says, glancing at the tickets.
I look at the space.
Fourth row back, two tables in.
All I see is a clutter of tables and chairs.
I try and count them.
One. Two Three. Four.
And second table in.
There are two seats free here. This must be it.
I squeeze through, dumping my bag on the chair and wriggling myself between the tiny gap beside our table.
It’s very cramped in here. The back of my chair is knocking against the back of a chair belonging to the table next to me.
The row is indicated via a small sign propped up on the table top. The seat numbers scrawled onto the table’s surface. “5, 6, 7, 8,” out table calls out, clearly getting ready to audition for the next A Chorus Line revival.
I look around. I’ve lost Helen. She’s disappeared.
Oh well. I’m sure she’ll be fine. She knows how to stick a straw into bubble tea. That’s the mark of a grown up if ever there was one.
“I couldn’t find you!” says Helen, plonking herself down in the seat next to me. She gets out her fan and flicks it open. If you’ve ever wondered where I learnt my fan-flicking skills, the answer is that it’s from Helen. She’s not just a master straw-pusher, you know.
“Do you want a drink?” she asks.
I want to tell her not to be silly, that she just bought me boba tea, but I don’t think I’m ever getting out of this seat, and, well… I kinda want a G&T.
“It’s up to you,” she says. “I’m not fussed either way.”
Well, in that case… “I wouldn’t say no to a gin and tonic,” I tell her.
With a snap of her fan, she gets up and goes to the bar.
I look around.
Ahead of us is the stage. Raised.
Behind are the cheap seats. Although they look quite nice. Velvet benches. With slim tables fixed in front of them. They look a good deal more comfortable than the cabaret set-up out front.
A second later, Helen’s back.
“That was weird,” she says, sitting back down. “When I went up, the woman there,” she says, inclining her head in the direction of the bar, “she kind of blocked my way. I when I asked if I could get a drink, she said the bar is closing…”
“Closing?” I say, picking up on the word. “So… not closed?”
“Well exactly!” says Helen. “That’s what I said. ‘Closing, or closed?’ And then she says ‘closed’ and then turns her back on me.”
“It was quite.”
“But also like… notice how the show still hasn’t started yet,” I say, with a wave of my hand to indicate the absence of anyone on stage. “They could have totally made you a drink by now.”
“And like… these are cabaret tables…. So, like… shouldn’t there be table service?”
“Otherwise, what the hell is the point?” I say, getting rather worked up now. “They might as well just have normal seating down here.”
Helen laughs. “You sound like such a little reviewer now.”
“Well, I’ve seen a lot of theatres doing stuff well. It really fucking irritates me when they don’t.” I lean back in my chair. “And here they just treat you like livestock, moving the moving crowds from bar to seat, prodding anyone who gets out of line… You wouldn’t get that shitty attitude at Magic Mike.”
That’s sure enough. Say what you want about Magic Mike (and believe me, I’ve said a lot) you wouldn’t get staff like this at the Hippodrome. Not that I’m blaming the staff. It’s the management. But that doesn’t stop them from being rude.
And it’s not like it’s even Soho-cool rudeness, if such a thing even exists anymore.
This is not clever rudeness. Or snarky rudeness. Or amusing rudeness.
This is the rudeness of people who don’t care about the experience they are providing. The rudeness of people who think your ticket only buys you access to a show and nothing more. The rudeness of the overworked. The rudeness of the underpaid.
The rudeness of bad management.
“She could definitely have worded it better,” agrees Helen.
The house lights dim.
The cast come out. They’re wearing blue bodystockings. And they’re dancing.
And it’s hilarious.
I look over at Helen.
Earlier today I’d told her they’d referenced Twyla Tharp in their marketing copy. I don’t know what this is, but it is not Twyla Tharp.
But she’s smiling. She’s loving it too.
As the first number finishes and we are taken backstage into the dressing room where they begin preparations for the next act, I forget all about the dismal Soho staff and find myself lost in a world of sequins and female friendship. The type of friendship where every self-criticism is met by a chorus of personally offended “Nooooos.” Where compliments are used as punctuation. And grand proclamations of undying affection are given as standard.
It’s hard not to grin while watching these three.
They are clearly having so much fun, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been invited along for the ride.
With champagne flutes at the ready, they pour themselves glasses of glitter from wine glasses filled with the sparkly stuff. And I can’t think of a better metaphor for the Soho.
A dull, heavy, container, only rendered special by the dazzle and spark that lives inside. And without that? Well, it’s fit for nothing by bludgeoning someone over the head with.
“I am so happy right now,” I say to Helen as the house lights go up, following what must have been at least five fake-out curtain calls.
“I didn’t see any Twyla Tharp…” she says, but she’s smiling.
“I think they just picked a contemporary choreographer at random.”
“I think they must have.”
“But it was so joyful!”
“It was very joyful. But also real. I recognised everything that happened on stage.”
I nod in agreement. It did all feel very real. We’ve all had those friendships. Those conversations. Even if we weren’t in an award-winning comedy dance troupe. “The little one was totally Ellen,” I say, referring to our mutual friend.
“She was totally Ellen! Small. Brunette. Cute. And…”
“Pissy,” we both say at the same time.
“I think I’m the tall one,” says Helen. “I’m just vulnerable, you know?”
I look at her seriously. “You are loved and deserve validation,” I tell her. I pause. Something occurs to me. “Does that mean I’m Sunita?”
I don’t think I’m a Sunita. But I’m also not mad about being a Sunita.
“I loved Sunita,” says Helen.
I loved Sunita too. She was fabulous. Always with a make up brush in hand, stroking her cheeks… yeah, I’m a Sunita.
There’s a crash. The stage is already filled by people bringing down the set.
“They could have at least waited for us to leave,” says Helen as we get out from our table. But there’s no stopping them. They’re already pulling down the projection screen, lifting it down from the stage.
“We should go…” I say. And we traipse back up the stairs into the pink-filled foyer.
It’s going to be a long time before I’m back here.
Can’t say that I'm all that upset by that.
Well, not until they programme the next Philip Ridley.