I have to admit, I don't know anything about my next theatre. Not for lack of trying though. I've been on the Stockwell Playhouse website a lot, but even with that research happening, the things I've learnt are limited to the following: it's in Stockwell, there is lift access to all floors, and they have very short runs of musicals, spaced very far apart. That's it. I don't know whether it's a receiving house or a producing one. I don't even know if the shows are amateur productions. I just know that they have Spring Awakening on tonight, and I am going.
I've never seen Spring Awakening before, but I hear it's rather good. Nicki from my work, who went to see Six with me all those months back, claims it's her favourite musical. She saw it on Broadway, because of course she did. I'm perfectly willing to believe it's great. Duncan Sheik did the music after all, and I'm a major fan of American Psycho: The Musical.
Anyway, here I go. Short walk from Stockwell tube station and... that is not what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting. But not that.
There, directly opposite the traffic lights, is a large, modern building. With a glass-fronted ground floor. It doesn't look anything like a theatre. If I had to guess, I would say... I don't know... a gym maybe? But that's it. And the reason I know that's it, is because there are twin screens over the doorway, flashing and displaying the name: Stockwell Playhouse, as if we were standing outside some regional cinema or something.
Lots of people are going in.
Looks like Spring Awakening is the hot ticket in Stockwell tonight.
Inside there's a small foyer, and then the box office, in its own little hut. The box officer sealed off behind glass windows.
I join the queue and half a minute later it's my turn.
I give my name and to my surprise the box office starts flicking through a ticket box. For some reason, I hadn't expected there to be paper tickets. I thought we'd be fully in check-list country here but it seems not. There it is, in my hand. With no fuss whatsoever. I didn't even need to confirm my first name. It was just given to me.
Well, I better go see what's happening upstairs then.
First stop, the bar. It's very busy in here. Very, very busy. So busy, I'm not sure I could even squeeze myself in. There's a pink light glowingly hazily over the crowd. I try to get a photo, but there's just too many people for me and my inferior photography skills to capture any sense of the space, so I move on. Further down the corridor.
On the walls, rehearsal photos have been arranged in neat patterns. I've noticed that this seems to be rather a thing in amateur theatre. This sticking of photos on the wall. Kinda reminds me of when I was at school, and they'd blutack all the play photos to try and convince our parents to purchase copies.
There's a group of young women getting their tickets checked at the door to the theatre and chatting about some mutual acquaintance
"Can I interest you in a programme?" asks the ticket checker, putting on her best sales assistant voice. "Only one pound fifty."
"Does it have a picture of him in it?" asks one of the girls.
"It does!" The ticket checker flicks through the pages and turns around the programme to prove the existence of this photo. "There," she says, pointing to one of the headshots.
"Well, alright then."
"You have to get it," says her friend. "So you can ask him to sign it."
"Exactly!" agrees the ticket checker.
The girl is convinced. She reaches for her purse.
The other ticket checker spots me, and she leans around the group to reach for my ticket.
"Can I get a programme?" I ask. I want in on this headshot action.
"That's one pound fifty," she says, pulling one from her pile in readiness as I try to find the coins.
"Bargain," I say as I hand over the funds. It really is. By the looks of it, there is quite a few pages in that thing.
"Enjoy the show!" she wishes me as I take the programme and move on.
Everyone is so cheerful tonight. I can feel it in the air. The energy is crackling.
Although, that could just be the air con.
I'm in the theatre now and it's like a fridge.
I shiver as I find my seat in the front row and take off my jacket.
It's big in here. Like, properly big. No circle on anything, but the stalls go back quite a ways. And it's, you know, a theatre. Fixed seating. None of that temporary nonsense, or a room filled with chairs. Even the front row is on a rake, with a little step up from the entrance. And there's a raised stage. A bit thrusty, but nothing major. And a good size for a musical. I like it.
"Oo. It's cold in here," says a man as he walks in.
It is. And it's wonderful.
I have a look at the programme, and yup. It’s an amateur production. There’s a note from the director. You only ever get those in am dram programmes. And yes, look - there’s that crediting line you always get at these things: “This amateur production is presented by arrangement…” blah blah blah.
Well, that’s one mystery solved at least.
A young woman comes in. She's carrying far too many drinks.
"There you are!" she cries out to the other, equally young, woman sitting two seats away from me.
"What's all this?"
"This one's yours," she says and through some shared shuffling they manage to get a bottle out from between her fingers. Then she turns to me. "Sorry," she says. "I don't know you but can you hold this?"
She's holding out a plastic cup of water. "Don't worry," I say, taking it from here. "I have a spare pair of hands."
Now down to only two drinks she can get on with the business of organising herself and sitting down.
"I like your t-shirt, by the way," she says to me, dumping her bag down. "I want to a Hanson Christmas concert a few years back..." She then tells me this story about how they didn't sing MmmBop, because, well, it was a Christmas concert, and her friend never forgave her because of it.
I nod along and make sympathetic noises.
I don't have the heart to tell her it's actually a joke Nirvana t-shirt.
Oh well. No time for that anyway. The show is starting.
And, oh great. I'm getting a serious case of costume envy again. Everyone is dressed in black and white. The girls in black dresses with white detailing and the boys in natty breeches and jackets. I really want some. The breeches I mean. They look so comfy. Like pyjamas. And yet with that whole 19th-century German schoolboy groove going on.
The music's good too. It's very Duncan Sheik. Can spot his stuff a mile off. If only because he has this habit of building up a serious tune, and then suddenly stopping it just as it gets going. Like an Oscar's speech cut off when it gets too political. Like, we all want to hear some A-lister ranting on about the president, but there's a time limit and we've got six major awards to get through before the commercial break.
Now, I’m all for short musicals. The shorter the better, quite frankly. A nice ninety-minuter fits in well with my whole in-bed-by-ten way of life. But come on Duncan, finish the damn songs.
Still, it's fun. Even as they warn us about the dangers of an abstinence-only sex ed policy. Who can resist the sight of these prim Calvinist kids rocking out to these serious bangers?
In the interval, there's a race to the bar. I don't know how they all fit in that room, but they must have done, because when the audience comes back, they've tipped over from pleasingly tipsy to properly pissed.
One young man starts pulling out Dairylea Dunkers and handing them out to his mates, which is a hell of a choice of something to be munching on in the theatre. Crunchy and dippy? That's intense. Is this the future of theatre snacking? What next? Houmous and crudites?
As the lights dim, the drunken shushing stretches well into the first song, and the audience is there, right in the action.
You can hear the wimpering when the gun comes out, and as it gets aimed under a chin a cry of "Jesus Christ!" echoes down from the back of the auditorium. Followed by cries of "oh no! Don't!" as one of the girls gets led off. We all know what's going to happen. And this lot are really feeling it.
At the end, there's a standing ovation.
I don't join them.
Not because it wasn't good, just, you know, I see a lot of shows and I can't go around ovating for everything. I like to save them. Hold them back for the productions and performances that kick me right in the belly and leave me utterly winded.
"Night folks!" says one of the front of housers as we make our way back down the stairs.
No one replies. They're all too busy humming the tunes.