Theatre Surveillance

I feel a little awkward writing about this venue. You see, I’m currently waiting to hear back from a job here. I usually wouldn’t mention this kind of thing to you, but we’ve built up a fair amount of trust with each other over the past eight months, and I know you won’t tell anyone.

The hiring manager must be in deep deliberations about the whole thing. Usually I hear back within a week or so. But it’s been quite a bit longer than that now. Nearly eight years. So, you know they are really being thorough over there. And I appreciate that. I tried calling a few times. And emailing. And was told the decision-making process was still ongoing. So, I decided to let them get on with it. Hopefully they’ll get back to me soon.

It’s hard though. Because I really want that internship.

Anyway, it’s nice to know that even when they are in the depths of renovation (and hiring) work, The Old Vic still gets the neons out, and has the title of the show blazing across The Cut.

A Very Expensive Poison.

I’m looking forward to this one. I’m hoping to pick up some tips.

There’s scaffolding everywhere, with staff members scurrying around in hi-ves orange waistcoats and radios, but by the looks of it, there’s some sort of box office happening inside the main foyer. I make for the doors, and stop.

Time for a bag check.

The bag checker has a good old rummage around inside before letting me through.

Up the short steps, and in I go.

It looks different in here. Plastic sheeting is draped over the entrance to the stalls, leaving only the “Dare always dare” sign to peek over the top, giving me the feeling that I’ve stepped into the midst of a police investigation into a strip club murder.


In front of the plastic sheeting, that is very definitely not hiding from view the remains of a battered and bloody body, is the box office. Moved over from its old home on the side, leaving in it’s wake yet more plastic sheeting. Over on the other side, over by the stairs, is the bar. Or at least, what’s counting as the bar in these turbulent times. A small desk. With a stack of paper cups. And presumably, some wine or something squirrelled away somewhere.

“Is anyone waiting?” asks one of the box officers.

I scamper through the crowd towards him. “Yeah. The surname’s Smiles?”

He digs the Ss out of the ticket box and flicks through them. “Yup. Maxine. You’re in the stalls, so head outside and to the right.” He points the way in case I don’t know which way right is. Which for the record, I don’t. It’s much appreciated.

I go back outside and turn right. Or at least, in the direction the nice box officer pointed.

The twin screens up on the wall outside have given up their marketing duties in favour of helping direct people around.

Stall 01-13 & Loos says the one closest to me, with an arrow to point the way. The background is a screaming pink. Or perhaps a shocking pink. A Schiaparelli shocking pink. But when I try to photograph it, it all goes distorted, as if the signal has been intersected. Something to do with my shutter speed. That or some high-level conspiracy from the big wigs at The Old Vic. It’s so hard to tell nowadays.

I go round the side of the building, onto Webber Street.

There’s lots of hoarding round here. A black corridor tacked onto the side of the building. This is where they’re keeping the loos (incidentally, I’m enjoying that The Old Vic calls them loos, instead of toilets. So rare in the world of theatre. The Pleasance does it. And perhaps a couple of other places. But otherwise, it’s toilets all over the place).


But before all that, hidden under the scaffolding, is a side door.

I think that’s where I’m going.

There are two people standing on the door.

“Can I check your bag?” asks one, dressed in all black.

What? Again?

“I’ll check your ticket,” says the other, sporting an orange waistcoat.

I hold out my bag to the black-jacket with one hand, and my ticket to the orange-waistcoat with the other.

Both are approved and I’m allowed in.

“There’s a bar just on the right,” says orange-waistcoat as I step through the doors.

Up a few steps and yup, there’s a bar on the right. Well, a long table covered with a black cloth and wine bottles.

And a stack of programmes.

I definitely want to get me one of them.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask one of the two women behind the desk.

“Of course!” she says cheerfully. “Cash or card. Whatever’s easier.”

“Brilliant. Card please.” Always best to save cash for those tricky fringe venues.

“I love you purse,” she says as I go about the business of keying in my pin number (don’t. Just don’t. I have a tappy card. Or at least, it’s supposed to be a tappy card. But the tappiness hasn’t worked since the first week I got it. I broke whatever makes a tappy card tap. So I’m stuck with button-pressing until 2020).

“Thank you,” I say, as the payment goes through and I’m four pounds poorer. I give my elephant-purse a friendly pat. “He’s so old, but I refuse to give up on him.” He really is old. Over a decade. Which is alarming for so many reasons.

She laughs. “I have stuff like that. So old it's falling apart. Would you like a receipt?”

I tell her no. I have no use for receipts in my life. Try as I might, I cannot convince my work to let me claim programmes on expenses.

She hands me a programme “Oh wow, love the pink,” I say.

Turns out the Schiaparelli pink of the screens outside weren’t a coincidence. In lieu of artwork, shows get their own colour.

And A Very Expensive Poison has pink.

Personally, I would have gone with green. There’s actually a Pantone colour called Poison Green (16-6444 TPX if you happen to be a Pantone nerd), but it’s a bit too soft to suggest serious deadliness in my opinion. A touch too much blue. I think would have gone for something more like a Pantone 2423C if I was in charge.

“Yeah, the colours are great,” says the programme seller, not unenthusiastically, but still, I suspect she’s not up for a full-on Pantone discussion right now. And anyway, I forgot to bring my swatch book with me today.

I go into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. But not much else. The stalls are almost empty.

I make use of the lack of people by getting out my phone and snapping a few quick pics.


“Sorry,” says the programme seller stepping up to me. “There’s no photography.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say, surprised. That’s the first time I’ve been stopped in a theatre while the curtains are still down. There’s not a scrap of copyrightable set on display.

“It’s alright,” she says kindly, before retreating back to her place on the wall.

Well, okay. Not sure what to do now.

I sit down and get out my programme. It’s a nice one. Well designed. There’s even a fold out of rehearsal photos. I don’t care much about rehearsal photography (it’s literally always actors sitting on the floor and laughing) but I do love a fold out.

I really want to take a photo of it.

Can I take a photo of it?

I look over at the programme seller. An old woman goes up to her. “Sorry dear,” says the old woman. “Can you tell me the number?”

The programme seller leans in to look at the ticket. It really is quite dark in here.

I risk it. And snap a photo.


I look around furtively to make sure no one saw.

No, the usher is directing a young couple to the bars. “They’ve got wine, beer, and champagne at that one,” she says, pointing to table out in the stairwell. “And then there’s the big one upstairs.”

I slink down in my seat. I think I'm safe.

It's a shame though. I do like The Old Vic auditorium. With it tasselled balconies and moulded pillars and shaded lights and massive fuck-off chandelier. I wish I could show it to you. Oh well.

Two ushers appear at the front of the stalls, each holding up one of those don't-even-think-about-taking-a-photo signs. Which, even exclusing the, well, exclusive, vibes, doesn't strike me as a good use of someone's time. There's no one in here directing traffic. We have the programme sellers. And the sign holders. And... what looks like two security people hanging out by the wall. And that's it.

And why are there security people in the auditorium? I watch them, trying to figure out what they're doing there, near one of the doors. They stand, talking quietly to each other.

They're making me nervous.

Like they're going to pounce on me and drag me outside if I try to take another photo.

People are pouring in now. The rows fill up. I spot someone in the middle aim their camera phone at the ceiling and snap a picture of the chandelier.

I hate him.

The lights dim. The red curtains rise.

And the play begins.

We're in a cafe. A lawyer is meeting his client. It's bad news. They've cut her legal funding. But he's going to keep representing her. The fight is too important. Her husband has been murdered and everyone knows who to blame, except no one wants to admit it. Not publically, anyway.

We're back in the early 2000s, back to a case I only vaguely remember: the poisoning of Litvinenko.

And hey - look! Tom Brooke is playing Litvinenko! Do you remember when everyone was obsessed with Tom Brooke? Or rather, Tom Brooke's face. It's a great face.

I actually have a story about Tom Brooke. Or rather, Tom Brooke's dad. It takes place in The Old Vic too, so totes relevant. Not sure I should really tell it though... the walls have ears. Let's just say, it involved Tom Brooke's dad. A woman who would not turn off her phone. And a rolled up programme.

I’ll say no more. I'm very discreet.

MyAnna Burning, in the role of his widow, steps forward to speak to us, the audience. To explain. It's very important that we understand what happened.

The poisoning, I mean. Just to be clear. Not the thing with Tom Brooke's dad.

It's not easy for her though.

A red carpet is rolled out. There is a new president in Russia. And he wants to tell us a story.

Reece Sheersmith comes to the front of the stage, where he gives us a short history lesson. The Moscow Theatre Siege. We all shift uncomfortably in our seats. I look over at the security officers, still standing by the doors.

Sheersmith sneers, finishing his speech with a snide attempt at a happy ending.

"Ah, the doors are opening," he says, pointing to the auditorium doors behind us. "Enjoy your drinks. There's no need to return."

I go outside.

"Make sure you have your ticket with you so you can come back in," says an orange-waistcoater on my way out. I reach into my bag to double-check. Yup. Got it.

I go out and hang out underneath the scaffolding, lost in a forest of metal polls and orange hi-vis. They're everywhere. The orange-waistcoaters. I'm still not sure who they actually are. Ushers? Duty managers? Spies for the government who know that putting on a hi-vis jacket will get you in most anywhere without question? Quite possibly, all of the above.

"Sorry ma'am," says a orange waistercoater, coming over to talk to a woman near mewho's standing around, minding her own business, enjoying a plastic cup of wine. "You can't take drinks outside."

"Oh. Right," says the lady with the wine, her eyes widening in bafflement.

But she goes back inside all the same. No questions. Such is the power of the orange hi-vis.

Her place is soon taken though, as the queue for the loo stretches out of it's black corridor and stretches down Webber Street, curling around the front of the building.

I take a few steps away to avoid those trying to squeeze in, but still find myself getting jostled by all these women impatient to have a pee.

"Have you seen the queue?" a woman half-shouts, outraged. Her partner says something, but she's not having it. "It's not good enough!"

And with that she goes off to compain. A few seconds later, she's back, bringing an orange-waistcoater along with her.

The orange waistercoater points at the queue, and tells her yes: this is indeed the queue for the loos. And yes, she'll need to get in line with everyone else.

Others decide to fulfill their interval needs elsewhere.

I spot a couple tripping back happily from the Sainsbury's, Magnums in hand. No tiny theatre ice-cream tubs for these two. They look very smug as they skip past all us losers, standing around in queues without even a drink to call our own. Serious relationship goals right there.

"It's a coupe!" cries a man walking past me.

I though he meant the play, but no - he's looking at his phone, lit up with an article about the prorogation.

I go back in. I need some of that sweet sweet Old Vic air-conditioning. Which has really outdone itself tonight. Freezing cold, and I'm loving it.

I dig out my ticket to flash to the hi-vis on the door, but she stops me, actually taking the ticket from my hand to give it a proper look before letting me back in.

I'm rather pleased with this. Glad to know that I'm not looking overly trustworthy and can still push out those creeper-vibes.

Still… rude.

The side of the stalls is cluttered by people not wanting to commit to going back to sitting down.

I even have to shoo someone out from the end of my row in order to get to my seat.

But eventually, they cannot put it off any longer, and they slide into their seat with heavy wine-scented groans.

Sheersmith isn't impressed by our return. It demonstrates a lack of trust between us. He appears in the boxes, hanging over the sides to pour his own poison into the stalls below. At least, I think he does. I can hear his voice. And see a spotlight pointed at the box. But from where I'm sitting, I can't actually see him.

My neighbour drains his wine and checks the time on his phone.

This is a long play.

Not unentertaining though. And the message of fighting your own government in order to serve your country has never felt keener.

Burning comes out into the audience, handing out pieces of paper to those sitting on the ends of the rows in the stalls.

She returns with a microphone, pointing it in their faces as she asks they to read the results of the inquiry into Litvinenko's death.

They acquit themselves well, and she thanks them each in turn.

I hope they were given warning that was happening. It's a lot to ask.

As we meekly file out past the security guards, and the orange waistcoats, I can help but think of the demonstrations that are happening just the other side of the river.

I should really go join them.