8pm. A start time that promises so much when you have a companion to spend the evening with, hanging around in cafes and debating whether you can manage another drink before rolling yourselves over to the theatre. Less so when you are off for a date with no one but your stupid cough, and have two solid hours to fill before curtain up.
I decide to take a massive detour around the West End, checking out what was happening at the Dominion (nothing much) before making my way south of the river. But even after all that, I still arrived at Southwark Street, sore of foot and heavy of bag, with half an hour to spare.
I've never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory before. Tickets are outrageously expensive, and despite them pushing an early booking agenda, don't dip much before the mid-thirties. But I'm here now, due to having a ticket passed onto me by a friend who can no longer make use of it.
From the outside, it doesn't look like much. It's in one of those tall, old, stone buildings that could house anything from a bank to a squat.
What it does contain, as I find out on stepping off the street and into a small courtyard, is a restaurant.
Am I in the wrong place? I'd seen signs for the theatre but perhaps I had gone down the wrong way. I did think it strangely close to the other theatre on this street: The Bunker. Maybe I was supposed to go around the other way.
There were people sitting on a bench in the courtyard, all hunched over their phones with that collective boredom you see at bus stops hanging over them. One of them glances up and looks at me curiously.
Oh well, that was it. I had to go in.
There's a small sign on the desk oppostite the doors. Theatre and Bar it says, with an arrow pointing the way.
Thank goodness. I was in the right place.
I follow the arrow, which which we down a narrow path that curls it's way between busy tables, left then right, then right again, until I reach the other end of the room.
There's a door back here, covered in laminated A4 print outs. "Box Office & Theatre Entrance," one says. "Please mind your step," warns another.
I mind the step, and make my way through.
From the restaurant, I now seem to find myself in a pub. Not just a pub, an old man's pub. An old man's pub in some remote village. The ceilings are low and the heavy wooden beams make it feel even lower. There are brick walls and exposed wiring that should give it that Shoreditch edge, but somehow just make it look a little tired.
The bar is opposite. There's a long queue.
I can't see the box office.
I'm in the right place though. There are theatre posters on the walls. I may not frequent old man pubs on the regular, but even I know they don't tend to go for old theatre posters as decor.
I edge my way further in. There's a lot of people in here.
Ah, there it is. The box office. Hidden around the corner.
I join the queue.
There's only one person ahead of me, but he's taking for frickin' ever.
I spend my time darting forwards and back as people try to get past me to the few chairs remaining vacant.
Oh good. Another person has jumped behind the counter.
I step forward and... shit. What was the name again? Not mine. Don't say that.
I manage to give Janet's surname. It feels weird and a bit wrong. Like I'm a spy in an undercover operation. Mission: Orpheus Descending.
It comes out sounding strained. There's no way he doesn't know that's not my name. I wasn't even slightly convincing. I'd make a terrible spy. And an even worse actor.
He starts looking through the tickets.
I tell myself that I'm Janet today, not Maxine. I need to think Janet thoughts: retro dresses, novelty prints, red hair, and Shakespeare.
Shit. He might ask for my postcode. Janet's postcode. I'd been rehearsing it the whole way over. All the way through the West End and across the river. And I couldn't recall a single digit of it.
"Janet?" he says, plucking out a ticket.
"That's one ticket," he says, handing it over.
Oh, wow. Scrap everything I've ever said. I'm a great actor. And would make a fucking fantastic spy. No wait. Even better. I could act the fuck out of a spy-character. Sign me up for the next series of Killing Eve, because I've got this shit down.
I'm so pleased with myself it takes me a second to realise that the guy on box office is trying to tell me something.
I try to focus. It sounded like he sais the show was two hours and forty minutes, but that can't be right.
"The first act is one hour forty," he says. I must have pulled a face because he grimaces in sympathy. "Then there's a fifteen-minute interval, followed by a forty-minute second act. And there's no readmission."
"Christ..." I say, forgetting that I was supposed to be Janet. "Thanks for the warning."
I probably shouldn't have blasphemed. I don't think Janet does that.
Two hours, forty minutes. And a 8pm start.
Is this a thing now? When did it become a thing? When did long plays stop demanding early starts? Do people not need sleep in this town?
I buy a programme in an attempt to cover up my error. I have four pounds in my purse. Would Janet pay with the exact change or hand over a fiver? I don't know. Shit. This is terrible. I'm floundering. Cancel my Killing Eve audition. I'm not ready for this yet.
I hand over the four pound coins and scuttle away, intending to hide behind my programme.
There are no chairs going spare, but I spot a leaning table without any elbows attached to it.
I rush over, and dump my programme and purse on it, staking my claim before anyone else has the chance.
It lasts for precisely half a minute before a couple plonks down their wine next to me, and jostle me around to the other side.
"The house is now open if you'd like to take your seats," comes a call from the auditorium door. I hadn't noticed it before. There are curtains made of what looks like sailcloth. There are even metal rivets punctuating the edges.
I look around, trying to work out if they tie into a theme somehow. The posters, the beams, the exposed brick, and the whitewashed walls. And now sailcloth.
Whatever's going on, I'm not getting it.
But I do suddenly realise why I was getting such old-man-pub vibes from this venue. It is absolutely packed with old men. They're everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a high proportion of men at the theatre. Not even at that chemsex play at The Courtyard.
Is that the Menier effect? Or is it Tennessee Williams who's to blame?
"The show includes haze," continues to front-of-houser. He has to raise his voice over the din. "Loud gunshots..." No one is listening. His list of warnings trails away into nothing.
A bell rings. It's only a quarter to. I wait, expecting a proclamation to follow, but there's nothing. I'm confused. Was the bell a reminder for us to go in? Or final call at the bar?
The couple next to me are on the move again. I'm finding myself bumping against the next table.
It's time for me to go in.
I look at the ticket for the first time.
Of course it is.
Janet is such a front-rower.
I mean, I am such a front-rower. Because I am Janet. Love the front row, me. Can't get enough of it.
There's seating on three sides here, and I'm in the bank on the far side.
I tuck my bag under my chair and have a look at the programme. Is a tri-fold number. Rather fancy. It even has production photos in place of headshots, which is a very nice touch that I've never seen before.
I look closer. Hang on. That's Jemima Rooper! I love Jemima Rooper. Loved ever since she broke my heart in The Railway Children. Fucking hell. And there's Hattie Moran! I love her too! And Seth Numrich! Blimey. This is one hell of a cast.
Janet knows how to book good theatre.
I mean, I know how to book good theatre.
Having two hours and forty minutes to gaze at this cast doesn't sound so bad. Not anymore.
But when Jemima Rooper comes out it is under a mask of makeup. White powder. Red cheeks. Black eyes. She looks terrifying, and I feel attacked. I've suspected that I've been rocking the white powdered, red-cheeked, and black-eyed look about five years longer than is really appropriate. But man, I can't stop. And neither can Jemima Rooper's Carol.
She dances around the shop that we are living in, swamped by her giant leopard print coat, daring people to love her, to hate her. So desperate for them to accept her that she can't help forcing them to reject her.
I'm staring at her so hard I'm almost embarrassed by it.
As the house lights rise for the interval, the front-of-house steps in front of our row, blocking us in.
"If you can walk this way," he says, indicating the front of the stage-area.
I follow his directions and head back out into the pub.
It's already full. There's nowhere to stand without getting bumped and shoved. I press myself against the wall, but it's no good. There's a constant flow of people making their way to the loos and every single one of them knocks me as they pass.
I go back into the theatre.
The set has changed. The tables have been rearranged.
There's no possible way to take the directed route
I walk right across the stage and hope the front-of-houser doesn't spot me. It's what Janet would have done. Probably.
Forty minutes left. It's not going to end well. I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Someone's going to die. I can feel it.
I hope it's not that nice Seth Numrich. He's so handsome.
Or Jemima Rooper. Not sure I could deal with seeing her go down.
Hattie Morahan I can cope with.
Except, nope, I really, really can't.
Oh, god. This is dreadful. Why are people so awful? I can't stand it.
I want to close my eyes, but I'm frightened that something will happen if I do. Not that I'll miss it, you understand. But that the very act of closing my eyes would provoke it. As if my being witness is the only thing holding the bad things at bay.
But I must have blinked.
Because the bad things come.
As inevitable as the sunrise.
It takes a long time to get out of the theatre. Plenty of time to listen in to my fellow play-watcher's conversations.
They're all talking about it as if they just read it in a textbook. As if it wasn't the most emotionally shattering thing to happen to them.
I hate them, and want to get away from the,, but there's only one exit, and I'm at the back of a very long queue.
"It would be terrible if there was ever a fire in here..." someone says.
Terrible, and yet I long to burn everything down.Read More