Playing the Fairfield

Four o'clock and I get a notification on my phone.

An email.

"Dear Valued Customer," it starts. My heart sinks. Being valued as a customer is never a good sign. "We regret to inform you that, due to an unexpected emergency, the theatre company have had to cancel the event 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' for this evening."

Blah blah blah. "Apologies." Blah blah blah. "Refund." Blah blah blah. "Don't hesitate to call."

This is so not what I need right now.

It's taken me nine months to find a theatre show in the Elliot Hall of Harrow Arts Centre. Nine months. And they don't have any other ones listed on their website. That's... a big problem. A big big problem.

A problem so big I can't even think about it right now.

I have to deal with the smaller issue right now. Smaller, but more urgent.

Which is, what the hell am I going to do with myself tonight?

I could give myself the evening off. Go back to Hammersmith. Wash my hair. Get myself some quality cat cuddles. But did I just mention that we're nine months into this marathon? Yeah. Now, I don't know what your maths skills are. But I, having a friggin' GCSE in it, so I can tell you that there are only three months left of this challenge. And I still have around 70 theatres to get to. I can't afford to be spending my Wednesday nights on self-care.

With an outpouring of more swearwords than my poor coworkers should ever have to listen to, I bring up my spreadsheet and start rearranging. Moving Saturday's theatre trip to Friday, I free up Saturday for a theatre I wasn't meant to hit until November. Which means, if I've worked this all out right, if I go to Sunday tonight, I can actually give myself a day off. A real one. During the weekend.

Whoa. It's been a while since I had one of those.

Right. Looks like I'm going to Fairfields Halls tonight. I better get that booked in.

I go onto their website, find the show, curse at the popup, scroll around desperatly trying to find the book button, select my ticket (front row for fifteen quid? Yes please) and then go to check out, get rid of another popup (pre-show dining? Fuck offfff).

I'm feeling more than a little pleased with myself, right up until the website decides to give me the spinning circle of death as I attempt to lookup my address.

I leave it a few minutes. Get on with some work. And then go back.

It's still spinning.

Huh.

Okay then. Close the window and start again.

Select ticket (front row, fifteen quid), put it in my basket, type in address... nope. It's not having it.

I scroll down the page and click the Continue button.

Right, now it's looking for an address.

I select it.

And then there's nothing to click.

It's just me, staring at a broken website, asking it to sell me a ticket.

I think I now know why they still have fifteen quid, front row seats, available less than four hours before curtain up.

I can't give up though. There's a free Sunday at stake here.

I try again.

Nope. Not happening.

Fuck's sake.

Two-hundred-and-thirty theatres in and I think I can safely say I've found the absolute worst theatre website.

Okay. Don't panic.

Worst comes to worst, I can call them. Box office people are lovely. That is totally a thing I can do.

If it were not for my crippling social anxiety.

I try again. But this time I'm sneaky. I make an account first, then double back to pick up the contents of my basket. Ha! It works. Success. You won't get one over me, you stupid website. I'm going to see your show and you can't stop me.

Two hours later, and I'm off to Croydon.

At least I know where I'm going now.

And, now that trams aren't a surprise to me anymore, I'm not even a little bit scared of them.

Well, maybe a little bit.

Okay, I pelt it across the road even when there isn't a mechanical monster in sight.

But I'm here now. At Fairfield Halls.

It's a lot bigger than I expected, looming over the road. Towering over building works.

Long windows running along the front give the place the air of a car showroom. We are on Park Lane after all. Just, you know, the other one.

I find myself in a narrow lobby. There's more doors up ahead, through which I can see the main foyer. All high ceilings and bright lights. There's a queue going on through there, for what looks like the press desk.

That's not me.

Over on the other side there's a reception desk. That looks more my speed. I head over.

A man stops me.

"Are you here for the Ashcroft?" he asks, and I wonder if that's the new Bentley model.

"Yes?" I reply, having absoletly no idea what he's talking about but feeling that is probably the right answer all the same.

"You can pick up your tickets just through there," he says, pointing through the next set of doors to the press desk.

I mean... okay.

I thank him and make my way over to the doors.

"Are you here for the play?" asks the woman standing on duty there.

I am.

"Can I see your ticket?" she asks.

"I'm collecting." Or at least, I'm trying to.

"Are you a guest?"

Honestly, people like to talk about gatekeeping in the arts, but I never knew they meant it so literally.

"Ah, well, you'll need to go over there," she says, pointing back the way I had come. To the reception.

"That's the box office?" I ask, just to double-check.

Yup. That's the box office.

Right then. Back I go. To the fucking reception desk.

Honestly, I'm about two seconds away from declaring Croydon part of Yorkshire so I can get the hell out of here.

"You're picking up from over here?" asks the guy from before as he sees me coming back.

"Yeah, I'm not swish enough for the press desk," I tell him.

"Ah! Well, you never know," he says, sounding embarrassed. "You can never be sure."

"Hi," I say to one of the ladies on reception, trying very hard to keep the exasperation out of my voice. "The surname's Smiles?"

She looks at me blankely.

"I'm collecting a ticket?" I press on, really not wanting to be sent somewhere else again.

"Is it a guest ticket?" she asks, sounding confused.

No, it's not a fucking guest ticket. Oh my gawwwd…

"No," I say, doing my best to keep the growing annoyance from my voice. "I bought it. With money."

"Excellent!" she says. "Do you have your confirmation email?”

I almost laugh. I'm literally the only person in this building who is a legitimate paying customer, and yet I still need to dredge out the confirmation email. I bring it up on my phone and hand it to her.

"Can you fetch it?" she asks the other lady on the desk.

I watch as the other box officer goes through the doors... and towards the press desk.

I am not a violent person, but seriously, I am about to slap everyone within a twenty-metre radius soon if... holy shit. I recognise that person. Over there. By the press desk. Picking up their tickets. Someone who used to work at my work. I now works here. At Fairfied.

As soon as I get my ticket, I rush over.

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"I spied you!" I say as our eyes meet.

I shouldn't be so surprised to see her. But somehow it's always weird bumping into old coworkers.

We stand around, getting in everyone's way as I give all the gossip from the office.

"Are you here for your blog?" she asks.

Ummm.

"Yeah," I admit. "I wasn't supposed to be, but the show I was supposed to be seeing was cancelled and..." Yeah, I did it. I vented. All about the gawd-awful website.

"Oh dear," she says sympathetically. "Do you want to get a drink?"

I don't, but I keep her company as she gets one and waits for her friend to arrive and tells me all about the refurbishment.

And then it's time to go in.

Two ushers stand by the doors to the theatre wearing matching green polo necks. They smile at everyone passing through. It's opening night and everyone looks super excited about it.

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I slip through and go up to the programme seller.

"Do you have change for ten pounds?" I ask.

"I'll have to give you coins though," he said, bringing out a plastic bag stuffed full of pound coins.

"That's fine," I say, trying not to show my excitement.

I'm not going to go on again about how much I love pound coins, but, you know I love pound coins.

The programme he hands me is massive. Almost as big as the ones at BIG.

Oversized programmes must be a thing at show-adaptations that no one asked for, because tonight we're seeing Angela's Ashes. The musical. Which, I don't mind admitting to you, I'm a little concerned about.

But I've got my programme, there's no turning back now. Not after everything I've been through to get here. Oh wait, wrong door. I turn back and hurry further down the corridor until I find door two. There we go. I'm in.

Front row here I come.

Except, it's not quite the front row. There are two rows ahead, but there's no one sitting in them, so they don't count.

The auditorium is large. The stage big. But it's not nearly as shiny and grand as the foyer spaces.

There's a sort of dinginess and worn-in feeling which I think is better suited to a theatre than glossy newness.

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There's an announcement welcoming us all to the performance. "Please identify your nearest exit," it advises us, which is not the most comforting thing to be told to do before a show.

The stage lights go up.

The cast starts to sing.

I don't know what the first song is called, but I'm willing to bet that it’s ‘Angela's Ashes.’

I'm wincing so hard I think I might dislocate something.

But it doesn't last long, because after the initial cringe-fest, it's actually rather good.

I'm enjoying myself.

Well, 'enjoying' is probably the wrong word to talk about a misery memoir, but you get what I mean.

In the interval, I head back out. The usher on the door grins. "See you in twenty minutes!" he says.

I find a convenient pillar to lean against and edit my Red Hedgehog blogpost. I am like, stupidly behind at the moment. Four show weekends are not my friend.

"Ice cream, madam?" asks the usher on the door as I go back in.

"No, thanks." It's not really an ice cream kind of show. It wouldn't feel appropriate to be digging into a mint choc chip while there are babies howling for a bottle of milk.

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But it's okay. I know our Frank is going to make it out okay. After all, he wrote the memoir. And the sequel (which is excellent by the way, although I'd bet you already know that because literally everyone in the world has read it).

But then we have to end with that Angela's Ashes song, so, when it time came for the standing ovation, I could not participate.

As I leave, everyone peels off to one side.

Looks like there's some sort of afterparty going on.

I leave them too it and head out into the tram-filled streets, thanking the theatre gods that that's me done with Croydon for the year.

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Yup, that's me

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.

Freeze frame.

Yup, that is me.

I’ve just remembered that I forgot to buy cough sweets.

Again!

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.

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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."

"Great." 

"But there may be someone sitting next to you."

"Oh, err...?" 

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.

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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. 

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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.

Pockets.

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."

Blimey. 

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?

Oh gods...

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. 

Literally 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. 

Science fiction, double feature

Is there anything more hedonistic than taking a half-day off work to watch ballet?

No, my friend. There isn’t.

And I can’t even blame the marathon for such an extravagant use of my time.

I’d had this outing planned for months. There was no way I was going to miss ballet-god Rupert Pennefather’s glorious return to the London stage.

Sadly, we all know what they say about god and plans.

But I wasn’t going to let the little matter of an injury and the resulting cast changes get in the way of my self-indulgent afternoon. So, after a quick lunch at my desk, I sauntered down to the London Coliseum. Or rather, the Coli. Everyone calls it the Coli. Or at least, I think everyone does. I certainly do. Perhaps just the pretentious twats who frequent it on the regular use that name. Of which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, I am very much one.

Which leads me to this question… how do I write about a venue that I am this bloody familiar with? One that I even have a charming nickname for? I can’t describe walking around in wide-eyed wonder as I’m sure I would have done if I’d been a newbie. The Coli really is the most extraordinary venue. Over-the-top in almost every aspect. It’s not just the gilt, and the velvet, and the massive stage. These are merely the base layer onto which Frank Matcham built his monument to excess. There are domes. Multiple ones. With stained glass. And stone gargoyles guarding the staircase. Marble balustrades. Mosaic covered ceilings (with umbrella’s to match). Carved wooden doors. Roman iconography. Golden horses. And then topping it all, a spinning globe lit up with the name of the theatre.

It has so much bling, even Elizabeth Taylor would think it a bit gaudy.

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No one told me there would be running on this marathon

I swear I’m going to have a heart attack by the end of this year.

Last night was the turn of the Brockley Jack Theatre (or possibly the Jack Studio Theatre, I’m not quite sure. Their website isn’t very clear on the matter of what they are called), which meant I was back off to south London and had to endure all the transport issues that go along with venturing south of the river.

I thought I’d give the ThamesLink a go. Be adventurous. Avoid the trains.

That was a mistake.

I arrived at Blackfriars just in time for the 6.26 to Orpington. Excellent work. Except the train wasn’t.

Ten minutes later I was still waiting. Then twelve. Then fifteen.

I was beginning to panic.

No, scrap that. I had left panic behind back in the office. This was way beyond that.

Now, being a feminist and all, I have a problem using the word hysterical. But… stripping away the history of the term, as words go, it wasn’t far off what I was feeling. Inside. I think I managed to keep it contained for the most part. I mean, yes, a few people on the platform gave me looks as I bounced around on my heels, staring at the departures board with an unblinking stare and muttering under my breath. But they probably just thought I’d been mixing meds.

Finally, just as I was giving up all hope, and with absolutely no consideration of my nerves, the train arrived.

After that, it was easy. Well, almost. I’m fairly certain the American lady from Monday’s theatre excursion might have fainted if she had a sniff around Crofton Park station. Best just to hold one’s nose and make a run for it, I find.

I’m quickly becoming a connoisseur of the ‘how to find us’ pages on theatre websites.

And the Brockley Jack is a very fine vintage… can you tell I don’t know wine?

Regardless, so good where the instructions that the delivered me straight to the door of the theatre. Which turned out to be exactly what I didn't need. The pavement there was far to narrow to get a photo of the building. Where were the warnings about that, Jack Studio… or whatever your name is?

My first attempt to zip over to road was quickly aborted when I realised that I would definitely die. Instead I sprinted, yes - actually ran - down to the nearest crossing, jumped around waiting for the light to change, dashed to the other side, took my photos (all full of cars damn it) then scampered back for the return journey before making it in the door... fifteen minutes early. I'll say this for anxiety... I'm rarely late.

"Surname is Smiles" I said to the person manning the box office desk. I was a little out of breath. "S-M-I-L-E-S," I spelt out. I always need to spell out my name. Otherwise people tend to think they’ve misheard.

"I was just looking at your booking."

"Oh dear". Now, it's not uncommon for me to get that kind of comment when I'm picking up tickets. What with the aforementioned surname. I end up having some form of name-based conversation at least twice a week. Four times a week now that I'm hitting up so many box offices while in marathon-mode. But this man was not interested in my surname.

"It says here that you paid zero pounds for your ticket"

"Oh... ummm" I was fairly certain I had paid slightly more than zero pounds for my ticket. But perhaps I had somehow managed to circumnavigate the whole paying step without noticing. I thought back, trying to remember the transaction. I couldn't. There's been rather a lot of them recently. They all seem to merge together.

I looked where he was pointing. There, listed next to my name on the box office print out, was the figure £0.00.

“But I double checked the machine and you paid ten pounds.”

“That’s good…”

“Sometimes it just happens.”

“I can check on my end if that helps…” I said, reaching for my phone, not knowing quite sure how I would do that but wanting to show willing.

“No, it’s fine. You have definitely paid.”

“Oh… good.”

“Can I interest you in a programme?”

He definitely could. Only a pound. Bloody bargain.

Programme and ticket-token acquired, I was directed to the adjoining pub.

You could tell who all the theatre-goers were there. We all sat on one end, huddled together like awkward penguins, silent, surrounded by a mess of coats and programmes.

At 7.25, the theatre bell rang, and we stirred. Slowly at first. The bell’s clang taking its time to work its way into our trance states. One person managed to stumble to their feet, lumbering their way towards the theatre. Another followed. Until we all managed to stagger our way down the hall, like a plague of zombies, except slightly more worn-looking.

The theatre itself is teeny tiny. Although seating is technically on three sides, two of the sides only manage about fifteen seats between them. End-on, there is a single row at stage level, and then a further three tucked away on a platform behind them. Plonking myself in the second row, I managed to enjoy the twin pleasures of having a view unobstructed by any heads in front of me, and none of the vulnerability associated with sitting out front. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I was there to see Gentlemen Jack, which I chose for two reasons. Firstly, I liked the idea of double-Jack action, what with the play name and the theatre. What can I say? I’m a simple person. The other was that being about Anne Lister, the 19th century diarist, mine-owner, and very-out lesbian, the play had a higher chance than usual of containing bonnets.

After the disappointing lack of frothy-headgear in my last theatrical trip to the 1800s, I was doing my best not to get too excited about the prospect. I do get why directors might not want to insert bonnets into their plays. They obstruct the face and all that. But god-dammit, I love them. And they are period appropriate. And and and… I just want bonnets. Is that too much to ask?

No, as it happens. Because this play delivered.

Yes, my friends. There were bonnets. Multiple ones. 

I was so bloody happy.

What a fucking excellent play. I really enjoyed it.

Not just because of the bonnets you understand.

I mean, it was mainly the bonnets. But there were other things too.

The entirety of Lister’s wardrobe, for one. All black. All fabulous.

That floor-length black velvet coat? Yeah, I wanted to take that home with me.

It made me feel quite gauche sitting there in my dress covered in a loud and obnoxious print of red roses. Yes, it was from Killstar. And yes, the roses had some spiky grey thorns. But my Goth-points were running at an all time low in the face of such Regency-gothic goodness.

And then the lacey dressing gown worn by one of her lovers… damn. I should wear more lace. My life is definitely lacking in the lace department.

I wonder if I can get one on eBay…

Is this how I insult the entirety of South London?

My life can now be condensed down to a series of Ws: Wake. Write. Work. Walk. (39) Winks... okay, I need to brainstorm that one a bit more. But you get the idea.

Yesterday… was a struggle. I’ve been up at 6am every day in order to get my posts written before going to work in the morning. Which is… fine. I can do mornings. A cup of tea and a big bowl of porridge will see me through. 5.30am though. Now that’s a challenge. A challenge I needed to face, in order to get my words bashed out and then still arrive just early enough at work, that I could leave in time to get to West Norwood for that evening’s show. I had no idea how long that would take. Like with plays, i hoped for 90 minutes straight through. I feared 2.5 hours and an interval.

Where the fuck even is West Norwood? I had to look it up.

South London. Somewhere. Hence the name of the theatre that was next up on my list: the South London Theatre.

Look, I'm sorry. But if it doesn't have a tube station, it basically doesn't exist to me.

The TFL journey planner was no help at all, suggesting a route that involved three buses, a magical unicorn, and a dark portal, which didn’t sound right. I was fairly certain people lived in West Norwood. And they occasionally left and then felt the need to get home. There had to be a better way.

In the end, I decided that better way was sticking on the Northern Line all the way to the bitter end - that is: Balham, and getting the train from there.

An actual train.

In London.

God, the transport system in this city is weird.

An hour later, and feeling rather windblown after my journey, I alighted at West Norwood station.

That had been easy.

Now, where was the theatre?

The Old Fire Station (a much better name for the theatre if you ask me) was just around the corner as it happened.

Oh.

Well, what now? Was I supposed to go in?

The show didn’t start until 8. That was still an hour away. There’s getting to a theatre early in order to take photos and see what it’s all about, and there’s turning up an hour beforehand and getting under everyone’s feet.

Plus, the doors were closed.

And not just: It’s-cold-outside-let’s-leave-the-doors-shut-to-keep-the-heating-in kinda closed. But a we’re-not-ready-for-you-yet type of closed.

As if to prove my point, a young man loped down the road and used the keypad on the wall in order to unlock the door.

This theatre was very much not open to callers yet.

Okay, that’s fine. I’m sure there are many delightful ways to pass the time in West Norwood, I thought to myself, before loping down the road myself to go and discover what they were.

I’m happy to report that West Norwood’s high street is… exactly the same as every other high street in London. Chicken shops. A boarded up pub. Estate agents. A smattering of supermarkets. And too many coffee shops. There surely can’t be enough coffee drinkers in West Norwood to support them all. Do the people of West Norwood have a problem? Does getting on an actual train every morning necessitate huge amounts of caffeine? It’s okay. There’s no shame in it.

But other than that, I might have been anywhere in zone 3 really.

Oh wait. There’s a library. That was nice.

After marching my way all the way down the high street, and all the way back up again, I checked to see what time it was. Blimey. Only 7.30. That hadn’t taken long.

But it was okay. The doors were open! The South London Theatre was ready to receive callers.

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The closed door policy of earlier had done a wonderful job of keeping the heating in, and it was lovely and warm inside.

“Are you here to see the show?” I was asked as soon as I stepped in.

I said I was.

“Have you already bought your ticket?”

I had. I came prepared.

“Head over to the desk to pick up your admission pass.”

I did as I was instructed. And after having my name checked off the list was handed a small, laminated ticket.

Err, what now?

"Would you be interested in a programme?" laughed the programme seller behind me. "Only one pound?"

The man she was talking to declined the offer.

"I would be very interested in a programme," I said. Which is true. I'm always interested in a programme. Have I told you all about how much I love programmes? Because I do. I really love programmes.

“That’s the director,” she explained, indicating the man she’d been trying to hawk a programme to.

“Oh… How much are they again?”

“The suggested donation is a pound,” she said as I opened my purse. “The suggested donation. But you can give more.”

“I’m very poor,” I said apologetically as I handed over my pound coin. This is true. Made all the truer by the recent discovery of how much I have spent on programmes this year. I’ve been keeping track you see. In a spreadsheet. And I had just added in a SUM formula at the bottom of the column that morning. £47. Not including the pound I was handing over at that very moment.

“How about a raffle ticket?” asked a second lady, showing off her wares. She listed a few prizes, starting with the very one most likely to turn me off: wine.

One day I should take a photo of the wine cupboard in my house. It’s filled with all the wine I’ve been gifted over the years and never drunk.

I’ve had a bottle of wine sitting on my desk at work for the past 2 years because I can’t be bothered to take it home. What’s the point? What am I going to do with it? Add it to the cupboard?

I don’t hate wine. I’ll drink it if someone hands me a glass. But I’m never going to go out of my way in order to do so, by… opening a bottle. Or buying a raffle ticket.

So, I declined, and stood there awkwardly, wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

“Where do I go now?” I asked eventually.

I was shown the doors to the theatre. “They’re not open yet,” she said. The South London Theatre sure likes keeping it’s doors closed. “But you can go down the stairs to the bar if you like.”

Programme and pass

The ceiling in the South London Theatre’s basement bar

I did. So I went.

The downstairs bar wasn’t packed, but had that overly crowded feel that comes from underground rooms with low ceilings. But what low ceilings! Every inch was layered with old theatre posters. And their proximity meant that they could be examined with ease.

I had a pleasant few minutes taking photos of the covered ceiling before I remembered that seating was unrestricted, and without an entrance system in place, I better get back upstairs if I didn’t want to risk being stuck in the front row.

I wasn’t. Thank the lord.

The front row didn’t have an easy time of it with this play.

There was hand shaking. Imaginary prop holding. And even a moment of shoe-shining.

Thankfully, from my spot in the third row, I was completely detached from such frightening things.

I don’t have any photos of the space, as the two actors were already in place when we were let in. So, it’s imagination time again. Don’t worry. It won’t be hard. The theatre is a small room, with comfortable bench seating on three sides and an impressive rake.

That’s it. We’re done. I told you it wouldn’t be difficult.

It’s not the sort of theatre that would usually be on my radar outside of this challenge, but as it happened, they were staging a Philip Ridley play that I hadn’t seen before. And I adore Philip Ridley. He’s as dark as Martin McDonagh, but filled with a love and compassion that hits you right underneath the ribs and lodges there for days… sometimes even weeks after seeing one of his plays.

So, even outside of the marathon, I might have gone. Might have. Except for the pesky West Norwood thing.

I don’t know about everyone else in the audience though.

They all seemed to know each other. Or people connected with the play.

It was like walking into a church and realising too late you were at the wrong wedding.

When the play ended, they all hung around. For what I’m not sure. To congratulate the bride and groom perhaps.

All Ridley-ed up, and with a train to catch, I left.

I’m still not exactly sure where West Norwood is though…

I am not a number. I am a three man

I’ve been giving a lot of big talk about small theatres in the past few blogs, but this next one looks upon them and sneers at their hulking coarseness. Where the Ambassadors and the Garrick are lumbering about, weighed down by fancy architectural flourishes and Grade II listings, the Union Theatre zips nimbly around them, laughing at their twirly bits.

Twirly bits aren’t the only things they’ve done away with.

When I arrived at the box office (perched on the end of an already small bar) I was handed a large purple disk emblazoned with the number 3 that looked like the sort of plastic tag a bored-looking shop assistant will hook onto your hangers in a shop’s changing rooms.

“Have you been here before?” asked the youngest box officer I had ever seen (I swear it’s not just me getting old).

I had to admit that I had not.

She explained the system. Once the doors open at 7.15, we’d be called into the auditorium in groups. First the 10 people with a number 1 on their disks, then the number 2s, then the 3s etc. Thus ensuring that those who had arrived earliest got first pick on the unreserved seating.

Neat system. I like it. Removes the stress and queuing that so often goes with unreserved seating.

Pressure off, I had the chance to explore.

The Union Theatre doesn’t have a foyer. As you as you walk through the door, you fall straight into a cafe that looks like it was modelled your cool friend’s kitchen. You know the one, the friend who has mismatched cutlery picked up from French flea markets, and collections of found objects arranged in a fresh and original manner, that you feel confident you could emulate in your own home, but you know deep down would only look like a towering pile of rubbish if you ever actually attempted it. The friend who reads Dostoevsky. In the original. But will only roll their eyes if you express amazement at this and ask you what you think about the new Doctor Who. The friend who only looks put together, and yet effortless. At the same time. The friend who would hate if you didn’t love them so much. Yeah, that fucking bitch.

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That combined with the massive tables built for sharing and the chill vibes radiating off the staff makes for a really relaxed atmosphere. Tables are filled with strangers as they perch next to each other to read or have a drink. The director was even having his dinner at one.

All this general bonhomie floating in the air must have softened my newly-sharpened corners because I soon found myself in conversation with a fellow theatre-goer on all things Ibsen. Or rather, I was talked to about all things Ibsen. I don’t have a great deal of Ibsen anecdotes at my disposal, so my new friend had to do most of the heavy lifting on that one. Thankfully, before the load of carrying the entirety of the conversation grew too much for them, their number was called and they were off, guided behind the heavy red curtains, through the great double doors, and into the theatre.

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A few minutes later, it was my turn.

I tried to get a photo of the inside of the auditorium, but the combo of me being a terrible photographer and the lighting being very… atmospheric (lit: dark. Or rather, unlit: dark) I couldn’t get anything remotely worth looking at. Unless you enjoy peering at murky-dark images, with only the shadows for highlights.

So, let me paint you a picture with words.

It’s a brick-walled room. Seven rows of seats. Green upholstery. Comfy. Excellent rake. Sound desk to the right. Staircase upstage. Lighting rig overhead. There’s a freestanding set that can be spun around to form a building caught mid-build, to a town-hall platform, to the interior of a house. Nifty.

The space is so small, and yes: intimate, that even from my position in the very-much-not-the-front-row I felt utterly immersed in the action.

The good kind of immersed. Not the actors-threatening-to-interact-with-me kind of immersed.

The construction noises were very effective. Really effective. A low rumbling on the edge of hearing gradually grew into a thundering roar until my chair was vibrating as the noise intensified still further and then slowly died down, finalising off with rhythmic metallic clangs. They were very familiar sounding clangs. Very familiar. I could have sworn I had heard that sound earlier that day. And not on a building site.

And that’s when I suddenly remembered that I was sitting inside a theatre built underneath a railway arch.

And the rumble was a train passing over our heads.

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It was a bit like stepping out of a dream when I staggered back into the bar during the interval.

I was fully not prepared to chat to anyone, no matter how chill the vibes or communal the large tables.

At these times I would usually bury my head in the programme, but being the spry and nimble theatre this is, there weren’t any.

And then I realised, with no ticket, and no programme, I would have no physical evidence of ever being here. No memento for me to take away.

Oh dear.

This was bad.

What was I going to do?

My boxes and boxes of random crap picked up from theatres was going to be missing a representative from the Union Theatre. My collection would forever be incomplete. What on earth was I going to leave to my grandchildren?

“Do you have, like, a cast sheet or something?” I asked, driven more by hope than expectation.

They did. Tucked away, behind the bar.

Phew.

Panic over.

Now that I know that they have small bits of paper for me to hoard like a Golem of theatre ephemera, I can confidently make the decision to really like this theatre. I’m going to come back a lot, I think… starting next year.

Sweet Madeleine, duh duh duh

Departing from the bright lights and over-amped atmosphere of the West End, I travelled over the river to check off my next theatre, by way of seeing the shiny new Martin McDonagh. Or rather, the slightly faded Martin McDonagh, as it closes at the end of the week.

I know, I know. You're not the first one to say that. I've heard it before. Loudly. It tones of consternation. Let me take the time to assure you that I went in fully aware that this was not McDonagh's finest work. And I was okay with that. Because I love McDonagh.

Yes, liking McDonagh is a very very dark matter indeed. And yes, he gives off the air of being... shall we say... a bit of a shit. I get that. He’s a superhuman wordsmith, who uses his powers purely for evil. I've never come across a writer who appears to hate his audience quite so blatantly, and seeks to cause them quite so much pain. With a cruel glint in the eye, he gives the audience a cute puppy to look after, before handing us a knife and telling us to murder it. And we do it. And giggle along the way. Horrified by our own laughter but unable to stop.

I hate him. And I adore him. But most of all I respect him.

If I had his skill, I would probably do the same thing. Or rather, I would watch his plays longingly, wishing I had the guts to do the same thing... so no difference to what's happening now really.

Now, I’ve been to the Bridge before. But ended up leaving during the interval because they had run out of madeleines.

No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I mean the little French cakey things that caused so much consternation in the last series of the Great British Bake Off. No, it wasn’t an overreaction. And frankly, how dare you even suggest that it was.

They'd built those damn cakes up so much, featured them so heavily in their marketing, made it as if pure joy could only be found within their soft golden ingots, that when we saw the last plate being whisked away from us at the bar during the interval, the disappointment was so crushing it was a physical impossibility for us to make it back to our seats to watch the second act. Instead we went to eat dessert at a nearby bar. It's the first and only time I've walked out of a play, and I still don't regret it.

Cake is very important to me.

So you can see, the stakes were high. I had to get those madeleines.

And I have to say, it's surprising how fast you can walk with the drumbeat of "madeleines, madeleines, madeleines," beating in your heart.

I powered down Blackfriars Bridge and across Bankside, driven by the kind of fervour that Trumpites must get when someone wishes them Happy Holidays.

The loud tapping of my foot and the pain on my face as I waited to collect my ticket was so acute, the bloke on box office actually ended up apologising to me. (No, I'm sorry, lovely box office person. All my fault. I was having cake-based-anxiety. I'm quite sure you understand).

Then on to the bar.

It was 6:50. For a 7.45 start. I was early. Really early. And yet there was already a queue.

I could see the chefs further along removing a tray of delicious domed dainties from the oven. The warm scent drifted over to me, taunting me. What if that was the last batch? Was I too late? This play had no interval. There would be no second chances.

The man in front of me was being served. What was he getting? Wine. Fuck's sake. Couldn't that wait? Some of us had important things to order.

The oven opened again and another waft of Yankee-candle-scented air blasted out.

The man's wine was delivered. He turned around.

Comeoncomeoncomeon.

The barman raises his eyebrows, indicating he's ready for me.

I try and step forward, but the wine man is still there, at the bar. Dithering.

He steps to the left, directly into my path, blocking me even further.

It took ever inch of self control I had not to scream at him.

Eventually, he and his wretched wine moved on.

"CanIavesommadeleinesples?" I said, clutching onto the edge of the bar for support, my purse already half open in my hand.

"Of course!" said the barman, as if salvation had not just been delivered to me in cake form.

For the princely sum of a fiver, I was handed one of those little buzzy things and advised it would take about 10 minutes.

I spent those 10 minutes taking photos of the foyer, and checking my little buzzy thing every 30 seconds, just in case my rapidly falling sugar-levels meant that I could no longer sense the buzziness, but I needn't have feared. Exactly 10 minutes later, it vibrated, and lit up with glaring red lights.

My madeleines were ready!

There they were. As beautiful as a newborn baby. As beautiful as six newborn babies. Sextuplets, no less. All arranged around a plate like the petals of the tastiest flower ever cultivated.

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I nearly cried.

Grabbing my prize, I found a seat, paused just long enough to take some photos (you're welcome) and dove in.

Oh rapture. Oh heavenly transcendence.

Still warm from the oven, each bite melted into memory without the indignity of needing to be chewed, leaving nothing but the taste of angel's tears and sweet butter behind on the tongue.

I had planned to take a few home with me to have as a midnight snack. I had even washed out my Tupperware extra carefully post-lunchtime sandwich (toasted bagel with chicken liver pate, sweet gem lettuce and lashings of sriracha) in order to house them safely for the journey.

That idea didn't last long. The only way they were going home with me was in my belly.

As the final bite dissolved into the distant past, there was nothing for it but to head into the auditorium.

How did I manage to sneak a photo of a empty theatre? Had I jimmied the lock and broken in overnight? Was I given a special tour by the press team ahead of my state visit?

I was surprised too. 7.34 and the auditorium was empty save for a few ushers and two other audience members who had not had not tasted the madelelines (I could tell. Their faces lacked the simple contentment of the saved).

A minute late a dark little ditty, poised somewhere between a child's nursery rhyme and a nightmare, started over the speakers, and people began to pour in, still clutching their wine glasses, seemingly determined to get as much alcohol down their throats as possible before the play begun.

The Bridge audiences sure know how to party. Or perhaps they'd just read the reviews. I almost started to feel kindly towards them. It was as if we'd all, collectively, decided we were going to get through this. Together. I don't think it's an overstatement to say there was a touch of the blitz spirit in the air.

The box hanging above the stage started swinging.

Wine was sipped.

Madeleines digested quietly.

Everyone in the audience set their shoulders to the task of getting through the evening.

The lights dimmed.

It began.

Anyway, I liked the play. I don't know what you all were going on about.