Sing a Song of Level Five

“I love that t-shirt.”

That’s my co-worker. We’re waiting for the lift, trying to get out of the office at the end of the day.

“I love this t-shirt too!”

I’m wearing my Greggs t-shirt. The one that is made up to look like those Gucci t-shirts that were super popular a couple of years ago, except instead of Gucci, it says, well, Greggs. It’s very cool. It always gets a lot of attention. Especially from men in white vans. And contemporary dance proponents, apparently. Must be the vegan sausage rolls.

It’s so cool, in fact, that I literally cannot go outside without getting at least three comments about it… hang on. That sounds like a challenge.

Okay. I’m heading to the Southbank again today. That’s a couple of miles away. About an hour’s walk if I don’t go above a gentle stroll. Which I have no intention of doing. I swear, I’m still recovering from that Midnight Matinee at the Globe (you’re killing me, Shakespeare). Let’s see what kind of attention we can get!

Jacket very firmly looped over arm (I don’t want anything to get in the way on my compliment hunting trip), I set off.

“Love your t-shirt,” a woman calls after me in Holborn.

“Thank you!” I call back.

The bloke she’s with turns to look. “What did it say?”

I straighten out the fabric so he can see. “Greggs!”

“It says Greggs!” says the woman.

“Greggs? Ha. I’ll have a sandwich.”

One down. And I’m not even out of the West End yet.

I nip through Embankment station and go over the bridge.

A woman, a different one, obviously, shakes her head as she passes me. “Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs,” she mutters. She doesn’t sound entirely approving but I’m counting it all that same. Perhaps she just had a dodgy steak bake or something. You can’t blame that on the t-shirt.

I’m on the Southbank now. Right in front of the Royal Festival Hall.

I pause to take a photo.

A few people glance over, but no one stops to comment on the t-shirtage.

I consider taking a turn around the building, give the t-shirt some more exposure amongst all the milling crowds. But it’s starting to rain. And I’ve walked a long way. I kind of want to sit down.

I’m on the ground floor. Next to Foyles. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this way. Probably because it’s dark. And empty. And I’ve always been distracted by the books. But I follow the signs up the stairs, and immediately find the box office, all gleaming wood, made even gleamier by the bright yellow light pouring down on it from above.

I give my name and the box officer dives into that huge wooden chest of tickets that I’d admired at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These are clearly a thing at the Southbank Centre and I very much approve.

“What’s the first name please?” he asks, as if there could possibly be anyone else with my surname here tonight.

“Maxine.”

“Lovely,” he says, flipping over the ticket to see where I’ll be sitting. “You will be on the blue side,” he says, pointing behind him. “That’s the other side of the building. And level five.”

I have to quell the urge to sing “level five” back to him. For reasons. I’ll explain later. Or even right now, because I am heading straight for the Singing Lift.

Do I have to explain the Singing Lift? You know about that, right? I thought everyone knew about the Singing Lift at the Southbank Centre. It even has its own Twitter account.

No? Okay, well, it’s a lift. That sings.

Don’t worry, I’m on my way there now and I can tell you all about it once I get inside.

It’s just round here, on the left, past the sunken ballroom with the neon sign hanging over it. Conveniently on the blue side of the bu8lding. It’s almost like it’s mean to…

Oh. There seems to be a lot of people round here. All wearing Southbank Centre logoed tops. One of them is talking into a radio, and another is sticking something to the glass door of the lift.

I hang back to watch until they’re gone and then go over to have a look what the sign says.

“LIFT OUT OF SERVICE.”

Oh.

Oh.

Oh no.

Damn.

I was really looking forward to that. To hearing the dulcet tones of the lift grow progressively higher until I reach my floor. “Level Fivvveeeeeee.”

I’m really sad now.

Oh well.

No use crying over a broken lift.

There’s an empty table right by the massive windows overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Hall, so I go plonk my stuff on it and sit down. It’s a nice view. I can see the fountain from here. And the car park. It’s very soothing.

“Sorry, can we?” asks a young woman, touching the back of one of the free chairs on the other side of my table.

“Please do!” I say, waving my hand magnanimously at the seats.

She sits down, and is soon joined by the person she’s with. They turn their chairs to face each other and we all promptly stark looking at our phones. They to plan their diaries, me to edit my Turbine Hall blog post. I delete a good deal of it. Not sure I should really say that. Or that. Hmmm.

When I look up, they’re gone.

“Scuse me, is anyone joining you?”

Another person wanting my seats. That’s the price you pay for not having any friends, I suppose.

“No, please go for it!” I assure them.

Anyway, it’s probably time I got moving. I had no intentions of taking an inferior lift up to the fifth floor, so up the stairs it is. I need to give myself plenty of time to acclimatise to the low oxygen levels up there. Otherwise known as wheezing gently as I get puffed out after three flights or so.

There’s a programme seller at the top of the first flight. I stop. As much for a rest as the programme buying potential.

“Can I get one?” I ask.

“That’s five pounds please.”

I get out my purse. Or try to get out my purse. “Sorry,” I say, as I rummage around in my rucksack. “Perils of a large bag.”

“That’s alright,” he says, waiting patiently.

After a painfully long moment, I pull out my purse and see what cash I have on me. “Do you have change for a tenner?” I ask, pulling out a note, and sending my debit card flying to the ground. “Ah! Sorry. I’ll get that.”

But it’s too late. He’s already crouching down to retrieve my wayward plastic.

“Oh, I do have five pounds,” I mumble embarrassed, suddenly spotting the familiar green note poking out from behind a pile of receipts.

I manage to hand over the cash, retrieve my card, and claim a programme, apologise sixteen more times, and all without shaming myself any further. Result. I guess.

Right, there’s no putting it off any longer. Time to tackle those stairs.

I huff and puff my way up the stairs, and let myself be suffused by the smug feeling of satisfaction as I see the sign for level five looming.

“Where are you sitting?”

“Oh, umm. Door D?” I say, showing her my ticket.

“Just up those stairs there and on the left,” she says.

“Stairs?” I manage.

“Just the little ones over there.”

I look over. There’s only four or five of them. I can do this. It’s fine.

There’s a bar up here. I stagger the full length, my knees protesting with every step, until I reach the water jugs at the end. They are frosted with condensation. The water inside blissfully cold. I pour a cup and chug it down in one. Then pour myself another.

Oof. I feel better now.

I can actually look around and see where I am.

There are a few table and chairs dotted around, but the real action seems to be going on outside. On the terrace. I fucking love a terrace.

I go out, and allow the fifth-floor breeze to buffet me.

It's pretty nice out here. You can see Big Ben, resplendent in all its cladding. And... what's that? Written on the side of the bridge?

"DON'T VOTE TORY EVER."

Huh. Good advice, bridge. Well done.

Now that's sorted, I better go back inside.

I find door D, and show my ticket to one of the ticket checks on the door.

"Just on the left there," she says.

I head off to the left.

"Hi! Hello!"

I turn around. It's the other ticket checker. She's chased after me. My hand reflectively lowers to my bag. I really hope she doesn't tell me to take it to the cloakroom. Usually, if I wear my rucksack on my shoulder, it hands low enough to evade the ticket checkers and their whiling ways, but it looks like today I'm not so lucky.

"I love your t-shirt!" she says. "Where's it from?"

Well now! Third compliment. There we go. Yeah, it came a little late. I'm not technically outside anymore. But we are definitely counting this.

I thank her, and tell her where I got it. "Bristol Street Wear? It's this guy who mixes up logos with stuff. Like, he has one which is the Aldi logo, but underneath it says Acid."

"Where's it from again?"

"Bristol Street Wear?" She frowns. "Shall I write it down?"

"Yes please!"

I reach for my bag again. I know there's a pen in there somewhere. The problem will be finding it without lobbing my debit cards all over the place. "Do you have a pen?"

She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a pen. "I have a pen!"

"And paper?"

She pats her pockets. No paper. "Hang on," she says, disappearing back into the bar. A second later, she's back, holding a book. Inside there's a folded piece of paper that looks like it's probably important.

"Shall I write on this?" I ask, doubtfully.

"Yeah, yeah."

I scrawl BRISTOL STREET WEAR across the top in my best capital letters.

"Yeah, he's quite pissy about some of the designers. Doesn't want you to buy them if you live in London. He doesn't want to see hipsters wearing them."

She pulls a face, but gratefully takes the book and paperback and thanks me again.

That done, I skip off to find my seat.

You might have guessed by now, what with the level five action, I'm in the cheap seats tonight. Right at the back. Definitely in a different post code to the stage.

As the seats fill up around me, I realise two things. One - the slips and boxes on the sides are completely empty. And two, this place was really not designed with any appreciation of sightlines. Where previously I'd had a nice, if distant view of a statue's bottom, and half-formed falls of an Italian villa, or something like that, now I was looking straight at the back of someone's head.

I have to sit really straight in my seat in order to look over her. This is going to be a fun night.

I have to admit, I don't know anything about The Light in the Piazza. Other than it's a musical. I think. Possibly an opera. They definitely cast opera royalty in it. So maybe it is an opera.

And nope. It's started now and it's a musical. For sure.

A really quite silly musical.

What the fuck is this?

A girl and her mother go to Italy. The girl falls in love. Sweet, I guess. But the mother keeps on telling us that there's something wrong. But won't reveal what it is until is. To the point that by the time it is revealed, I've stopped caring.

I've even stopped trying to sit straight. I've settled back, slumped, allowing my eyes to rest on whichever performer happens drift into the small slither of stage that I can see.

My stupor is interrupted by the interval.

I decide to use the time to have a look at the programme.

Oh, hey. Turns out the girl is famous. 25 million followers on Instagram. That's quite something.

There's a theory than in order to live off your art, you need 1,000 true fans. Turns out you only need three to sell a t-shirt. I wonder how many you need to sell out the Royal Festival Hall. I look at all the empty seats. A lot more than 25 million, it seems.

"Oh, sorry," I say, as a woman stands next to me.

"Don't worry, I'm here, next to you. I'm just trying to balance these drinks."

She does seem to be rather laden down with them. I can't blame her.

"I'm trying to work out how to make myself taller," she says, as she eventually manages to sort out the drink situation and sit down.

"The rake here is terrible," I agree.

"And the sears are directly in front of each other," she says, fixing a straight line between her seat and the one in front.

"It's so stupid."

"It's not very well designed."

"It's clearly made just for concerts."

She nods. "Yes, it's a concert hall! You're not meant to see anything usually."

On cue, a tall man settles down in the seat directly in front of me, his head completely blocking the stage.

He bobs and weaves, reacting to the person in front of him. Who in turn is moving in tandem with the person in front of her. And, so it goes, all the way down to the front row.

There was a time, when for the nominal fee, you could buy listening seats at the Royal Opera House. So-called because their positioning meant you won't be able to see anything on stage. All you could do was sit back and listen.

I would say that the Royal Festival Hall should institute this policy for the back rows. Classify them all as listening seats. But really, if this is what they have to listen to, better to put a couple of quid towards your next t-shirt purchase. I know a great designer, if you're interested.

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I blame Natalia

Way back in the midsts of time, when Cadbury sold out to Kraft, the coalition government was first coalilating, and everyone was freaking out about a dust cloud, little Maxine, fresh-faced and filled with hope, went to the ballet. She had been to the ballet before, but had never really got what the fuss was about. All a bit pink and silly, she thought. She was working a corporate job in the city. Dedicating her life to making even more money for people who were already far richer than she would ever be. She didn't exactly enjoy it, but she had graduated straight into the recession and was told by pretty much everyone she should be grateful for what she could get. In the mornings, she used to take the tube to Leicester Square and walk to her office from there, right through the West End. After a while, all the bright posters with their promises of excellent night outs got to her, and she started to see a few shows. They were okay. Then the Bolshoi came to town. She'd heard of the Bolshoi. They were that famous Russian ballet group, weren't they? She decided that as a sophisticated young lady, she should probably take in some proper culture and go see them. If only to say that she had, in fact, seen them. So she did. She booked a performance pretty much at random, and off she went. And there she saw Natalia Osipova.

And that, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the beginning and end of everything

She saw a lot of ballet after that. A lot of ballet.

She also started talking about herself in third person.

Eighteen months later, she quit her corporate job that she was really and truly, very grateful for, and got an unpaid internship in the arts, leading her on the path that would one day result in her declaring that she was going to see a show in every theatre in London within a single year.

Frankly, I blame Natalia.

As the dancer who really did start it all for me, the catalyst to the person you know and... know, today, I couldn't not include Osipova's show in the marathon.

So I'm going to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see it, and get the first of the Southbank Centre venues checked off the list.

The Southbank Centre always manages to confuse me. It's so big and sprawling. With entrances and staircases and terraces all over the place. I can't remember exactly where the QEH is. I've been there before. But only once. And that was a fair number of years ago. But thankfully, someone on team Southbank Centre has realised the problematic scale of their, well, scale, and the entrance I need it marked out in huge letters. QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL. With a handy reminder of one of the other venues that I need to go to listed underneath: PURCELL ROOM.

No good getting ahead of myself there. I try and find a spot on on this terrace to take a photo of the building. It's tricky, as there's a bloody great fountain in the middle of it. And while the weather is pretty good, I'm not overly keen on getting soaked right at this minute. Not that other people have any qualms about that. There's someone standing stock still in the middle of all the spurting water. He's wearing a suit. With a buttonhole. And looks quite content in there

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