The Curious Case of Currywurst and Cold Chips

A few days ago I was debating whether I would tell you if I ever got stood up. Turns out I absoluetly would, because it's happened. Your gurl has been stood up. Although I'm not sure it counts as a true standing up if you get advance notice. Okay, I got cancelled on. Surely that is bad enough?

Anyway, cue me contacting every single person I have ever met in my entire life to dangle the offer of a free ticket to a new musical in front of them and it is Allison who takes the bait. We haven't had a theatre outing together since Valentine's day, when she ditched her husband to come to the Donmar with me, and I think we can all agree three months is far too long to wait for a second date. But I can't complain. Not when Allison is stepping in the rescue me from embarrassing solitude once more. That's true friendship, that is.

We meet outside the theatre, pop in to pick up our tickets, and then head out for the really important part of the evening: dinner.

"Where do you wanna go?" asks Allison.

I'd suggested Borough Market and leftover cupcakes from my work's bake sale in my tempting messages that afternoon, but the situation has since developed and I have my eye on the Mercato Metropolitano marketplace on the other side of the road.

"Wow, that looks intense," says Allison as we look through the open doors at the long queue getting searched by multiple security guards.

"Let's try the next door," I suggest. In my earlier recognisance walk-by, I'd spotted that the last door seemed to be the most lax on the whole security-thing.

We try the next door, and get our bags checked.

It’s Friday night and the place is packed.

Every chair, table, and possible flat surface, is occupied. But curiously, each of the stalls is utterly devoid of queues.

The two of us walk around, trying to decide what we want to eat.

“Turkish German?” says Allison. “That’s a weird combination.”

“That is a weird combination… but oh, look! They have currywurst! I love currywurst!”

Allison has never had currywurst before, so it becomes my personal mission to educate her on the joys of sausage in curry sauce, and I order to.

“I’ll buy you a drink,” offers Allison as I shove my card in to pay.

“We have drinks vouchers,” I say, pulling them out of my pocket to show her.

“It’s just like a real date,” she laughs.

“I have cupcakes too, remember. I know how to show a girl a good time.”

We’re handed one of those buzzer things, which I immediately pass off to Allison. I can’t be dealing with those things. They make me anxious.

We find somewhere to sit down. Well, Allison finds somewhere to sit down. I balance precariously on a table. And we wait for the black box to beep.

Ten minutes later we’re still waiting.

“I thought this was place was supposed to be fast food,” says Allison.

“Do you think we should go and ask?”

We do. Or rather, Allison does.

“Two minutes,” says the guy in the stall. Behind him we see the cook running around, busily making our currywurst.

Five minutes later, it arrives. On two plates.

“Err, can we have it to go?” I ask, looking around at the complete lack of free tables to sit two large plates on.

After much huffing and puffing, we get the currywurst in a to-go container.

I immediately open mine and tuck in.

“The chips are cold,” I say.

Oh well. We head back to the Southwark Playhouse and set up camp on one of the small tables outside. Perfectly positioned to be able to see what is going on in the bar, and primed to launch ourselves inside when the doors open.

It’s also the best possible set up to show off to Allison my ability to put away vast quantities of food in a very short space of time.

“Oh my…” says Allison, as I use my last chip to mop up a dollop of mustard.

We both look at her dish. it’s still half full.

“Don’t worry, we still have…” I check my phone. “Five whole minutes. No rush.”

But the doors are open and the crowds in the bar are starting to go in.

Allison admits defeat and we head inside. Slowly. Currywurst doesn’t sit lightly on the stomach.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue. Or rather, everywhere seems to be part of the queue. Within seconds Allison and I are jostled apart. I reach out my hand to here, hoping to pull her through the crowds, but we’re too far away. I let myself be swept forward towards the doors of the theatre.

It’s press night tonight and the smaller of the Southwark’s Playhouse’s two venues, The Little, is packed.

“Where shall we sit?” I ask Allison as we finally manage to find one another.

There aren’t many options left.

“Shall we try the other side?”

Somehow, the good people of the Southwark Playhouse have managed to fit multiple rows of benches on three sides of a tiny stage in here. We pick out way around the tiny stage until we make it to the other side. There’s some free spots round here. In the front row.

Now, we all know how I feel about the front row, but I think we’ll be safe. We’re here for a musical. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, no less. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of show that will have interaction.

But then, one never knows with theatre. I mean… I’ve told you about the immersive Hamlet, right?

I put on my best “don’t talk to me face,” and settle in.

The cast come out. They’re carrying instruments. They strike up a tune. It’s folksy and earnest. Which, if that description sounds familiar to you, is because I used it to describe the music in The Hired Man. But where the storyline of that musical got lost in the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, there’s no chance of that in this tiny, intimate space.

Sitting in the front row, with nothing before me but these musicians bouncing around and strumming their tunes, I feel like I’m in some West Country pub, listening to the local band singing about the town’s resident folk hero - forever drowned in legend - the truth of his tale long forgotten.

And because it is a legend, we don’t have to worry about the silly matter of logic. Or even why the American writer’s tale, originally set in Baltimore (yeah, I did my research - I’ve read the Wikipedia page), has been moved to Cornwall.

A large puppet is carried onto the stage. It’s Benjamin. His father gawps and him, and so do we, as we all puzzle the impossibility of such a birth.

No matter. The story moves on and so do we.

“It’s really good!” says Allison as the house lights go up for the interval. She sounds surprised.

“Shall we get a drink?” I say, showing her the drinks vouchers that come as part of the press night experience.

The queue in the bar is intense, but we stick close to each other and soon make it to the front.

“What can we get for these?” Allison asks the lady behind the bar.

“Anything!” comes the joyful reply. “Beer. Wine. Spirits.”

Well! I plump for a Gin and tonic, cos I’m well sophisticated and shit. Allison goes for a beer with a very romantic sounding name that I immediately forget. “It feels right for the show,” she explains. I hadn’t been the only one picking up the pub-vibes then.

A few minutes later, there’s an announcement that it’s time to go back in.

“Can we take our drinks do you think?” I ask, looking with concern at the large quantity of G&T left in my glass. I may be a trougher when it comes to food, but downing a large alcoholic drink in one has never been part of my skill-set.

“Yeah, they just said,” says Allison. I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.

We go back in and settle in our seats, listening to the conversation flowing around us.

“It’s really gooood.”

“It’s amazzzzzing.”

“Well done, darling.”

I love press nights. So much audience enthusiasm as everyone congratulates their friends and themselves.

“Do you want a tissue?” someone in the row behind us asks her friend. “I saw it last night and the second act is a bit of a weeper.”

Oh dear.

I mean: yay. I have a hankering for a show that makes me cry those big snotty tears. But also, I’m wearing a lot of eyeliner today.

Thank god I’m here with Allison. She won’t judge me if I get my face covered with black tears.

The sniffs start quickly. Everywhere around me people are touching their fingers to the corners of their eyes. Soon there are nose wipes taking over as sniffs are no longer affective against this onslaught of emotions.

There’s something in my eye. I blink. That was a mistake. The tears I’d been so carefully holding back start to spill. I press the back of my hand against my cheek, hoping to get rid of them before my makeup melts.

The cast bows.

We stare at them. Clapping because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Our minds still not fully caught up with what’s just happened.

A few people stagger to their feet.

Gradually, more join them.

Allison gets up.

I follow her.

The cast start up again. A few people try to clap along with the beat, but the rest of us are too spent for such a thing. We fall back into our seats, crying happy tears as the performers play on.

The final note fades away. Grinning, the cast disappear. But we don’t stop clapping. Can’t stop clapping. This is it.

The cast aren’t coming back, but we still aren’t stopping.

Minutes later, they return for one final bow and are hands are allowed to still, the business of showing our appreciation now satisfied.

“I counted five people crying during the infirmary scene,” says the woman sitting behind us. “I love that,” as we all gather our belongings together.

Allison and I quietly make our way out. I can’t talk. Tears are still choking my throat.

It wasn’t the infirmary scene though. I mean, if you’re going to go, doing so in the arms of a handsome young man who adores you doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It was what came after that really got me. The diminishment of the self. The shrinking of Benjamin’s mind alongside his body. The memories fading. It comes to us all. Eventually.

As I trudge my way back home, I remember something. I hadn’t given Allison her cupcake. Shit. I had completely forgotten.

I’m a terrible date.

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A Conspiracy of Signs

God I love the Southwark Playhouse. No, I really love the Southwark Playhouse. I can't think about it without getting a dopey grin on my face. I have such happy memories connected to that place. From waiting for a friend who was working front of house there during a run of Philip Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, when the theatre was still under the arches at London Bridge, and getting handed one of the flaming red feathers when she eventually appeared (I still have it, Emma!). To going to the new (well, current) venue with the Chief Exec of the theatre I was then working for, and bonding in the interval over a shared love of musicals. To drinks with friends in the bar. To watching crazy musicals by myself (Xanadu…).

I fucking love the Southwark Playhouse.

It's one of those places, like Wilton's, that draws fierce affection from its fans. The vibe is cool, the atmosphere chill, but the work is smoking hot. Even when it's bad, it's brilliant (Xanadu again…).

I’d been trying to ‘save’ my visits to the Southwark Playhouse for when I was feeling a bit down, a bit in a need of a pick-me-up. But with my first season brochure of the year off to print, I thought I deserved a treat, dammit.

And besides, with the Playhouse announcing that they were opening two new venues this year, I needed to get a move on.

Plus, the glorious Ruby Bentall was doing a show in the larger of their two current theatres, so, I mean, I couldn’t really be expected to miss that now, could I?

Almost did though. It closes at the end of the week. For all my spreadsheets, I’ve still managed to cut this one fine.

No matter. I was off, marching across Blackfriars Bridge, through Newington, and there, gleaming out through the darkness was the jaunty sign over the door, its angle, tilted like the hat of Second World War’s rakish villain, telling you everything you need to know about this place.

“You know you still have some Pay-As-You-Go tickets on your account?” says one of the ladies on box office as she looks up my account.

“Do I?” I’m genuinely surprised. I thought I had blasted my way through those ages ago.

She confirms that yes, I do intend have some left.

I couldn’t keep the grin from my face. Well that was a turn up for the books! Only been in the building five minutes and already I’ve got some great news.

For those who aren’t in the know about these things, the Southwark Playhouse runs a scheme where you can pre-pay for five tickets vouchers at a discounted bulk-buy rate, and then use them towards your future visits. It’s basically like getting a free ticket, paid for by past you. Which I guess is like every ticket… but someone it doesn’t feel that way.

Anyway, it’s a great deal. And an even better investment as there’s no expiry date (I don’t think…), and so, like postage stamps, hold their value.

That sorted, we rapidly check off all my key points of a great theatre: real tickets (the tearable kind), proper programmes (two quid), excellent signage (both charming and clear, the winning formula), somewhere to sit down…

As I wander round trying to find the best place to park myself, I stubble on the smallest room I’ve ever seen. At first I think it’s a cleaning cupboard (yeah, seriously, that’s how small we’re talking here), but being the nosey parker that I am, I mean the intrepid blogger that I am, I have a look inside. Chairs. There are chairs. And a bookshelf. And a safe. Which has to win the prize for quirkiest place to set down your drink.

Now, I may be a long-term Southwark Playhouse fan, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for the cupboard seats just yet.

Instead, I found the perfect little corner table, just the right size for one lonesome theatre-goer, with a clock to keep me company as I proofread my Rosemary Branch blog post.

My proofreading didn’t last long. The pair at the table next to me were having a good theatre-chat. And theatre-chats are always worth listening into. Yeah, I’m admitting to it. No shame here. Theatre-chats are public property, I feel. Are at least, in the public interest, and therefore worthy of publication.

“You know why they cast a woman, or a cat, in the lead role?” says the man, leaning back as he prepares to lay down some quality intel. “It’s to get the young people in.”

Was he…? That was a joke… right? He wasn’t really comparing female lead actors to cats? Was he?

The rest of his conversation (which I won’t type out, to protect the guilty) suggests that no he wasn’t joking. And that that yes, he really was that insensitive to, well, everything from the importance of diversity on our stages to the benefits of creative interpretations of classic texts.

My blog post remained unproofread, serving as just something to rest my eyes on while I listened to this man talk at his female companion about everything that was wrong with modern theatre.

Right then.

Time to watch some theatre then.

Back into the bar, down the chandelier lit corridor, past The Little theatre, and into the very largely signposted Large theatre.

There’s always a moment, when you step out of the blazingly lit corridor and throw the door of The Large, when you are plunged into darkness. Blinking against all that blackness, you creep slowly around the corner, through a second door, and then suddenly the space widens up in front of you and you find yourself standing in this vast room with massively high ceilings and an usher rushing towards you, ready to walk you over to your seat. No confusing instructions and vague points to show you the way here. With the seating currently set up in traverse for the run of The Rubenstein Kiss, you are guided over to the right bank of seats and practically waved away with a sandwich in your bag and a clean handkerchief tucked away in your pocket as you go.

That famous aria from Madama Butterfly filled the space, and I breathed it in as I took off my coat and settled into my seat, feeling more than a bit smug about recognising it.

My smugness was soon cancelled due to bad weather and I began to wish that my metaphorical sandwich and clean handkerchief had been supplemented with a reminder to wear a warm vest. It was freezing in there.

It was hard to even watch the cast, especially poor Ruby Bentall and Eva-Jane Willis, fussing about the stage in vintage summer dresses. Their arms bare against the chill. Although, I suppose (allegedly) selling state secrets to the Soviet Union helps keep you warm.

You know, it occurred to my last night that almost all of my knowledge of US history comes from theatre. I can’t be the only Brit to be able to trace every fact they have on the founding fathers comes back to Hamilton. Despite studying the Cold War at school, I had gleaned almost all my knowledge of nuclear espionage from the ghostly apparition of Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America. So, thanks to Tony Kushner and Lin Manuel Miranda. Without you I would be even more ignorant than I am now.

And I guess to James Philips too. His play may only be inspired by rather than based on, but it helps fill some of the larger gaps in my brain with some form of narrative that no doubt will aid me in some other play down the line.

In the interval, I made sure to exit the stage via one of the doorways on the set - a tall column reaching up to that high, high ceiling, printed with the snaking staircase of a New York fire escape - giving a nice thrill as I was able to turn back and see the opposite side of the tower - from which Ruby Bentall had pulled all manner of props from during the first half.

For the interval, I found a quiet corner to finish off my blog post, and closed my ears to distraction. Somehow listening to theatre-chat didn’t feel quite so harmless anymore. But the Playhouse wasn’t having it. The music was turned up and I was soon bopping about to the sounds of Madonna and her critic of global consumerism while I dragged and dropped the images into place.

For the second act, I wasn’t taking any chances. I put on my coat.

But the team at the Playhouse had been busy, and hot air was being pushed into the space by a very loud blower. Which explains why they couldn’t have it on during the performance. When it cut off, I realised that Madama Butterfly had been playing all along, imperceptible under the roar of the blower. Which is hella poignant, and I’m choosing to believe, utterly intentional.

In fact, everything about the night is beginning to feel intentional.

From the private conversation that I really shouldn’t have listened into.

To the jokey First Rule about the Pay-As-You-Go subscriptions (You DO NOT talk about the Pay-As-You-Go subscription) on the Southwark Playhouse’s website.

To the gentle reminder from box office that I should really keep an eye on my account.

To Madonna’s tale of caution of choosing love over tangible benefits.

The threads all came together, jumbling themselves into a knot of red string that I couldn’t untangle.

Has the Southwark Playhouse been running the most subtle immersive experience in London? Or could it be that in fact, darker forces are at work. I could not help but ask myself: how deep does this conspiracy go?

This intrepid blogger… will not be pursuing this case any further. I’m sure it’s mere coincidence and nothing more.

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