I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.
This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.
But anyway, I'm here now.
At The Taproom.
Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.
I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.
But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.
I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.
I go in.
It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.
There's a staircase leading down into the basement.
That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.
A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.
"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"
"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."
"Any wandering eye..." she says.
And there I was thinking I was being subtle.
"Did you book online?" she asks.
Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.
I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.
Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.
"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"
I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"
So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.
I angle it to face me.
"That's a dodo," she explains.
It totally is a dodo!
"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"
"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"
They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.
She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."
She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.
Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.
A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.
The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.
There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.
It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.
And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.
We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.
"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."
We shuffle in a bit closer.
He sighs. "You can literally come closer."
The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.
The door is closed.
Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.
As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.
My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.
But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.
This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.
This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.
The scratcher sighs.
People are starting to look around.
Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.
Through the sighs, he starts muttering.
He really doesn't look happy.
He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.
"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.
I think we can all agree that he is not alright.
But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.
Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.
As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.
The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.
I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.
I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.
My nerves are on fire.
As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.
I eye him up.
People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.
If there are two, there could be more.
I examine the other audience members.
There's no telling how many there are.
They could all be in on it.
I might be the only genuine audience member here.
The lights flicker.
"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.
I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.
We both jump.
"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.
The lights flicker again. And go out.
I think I'm going to have a panic attack.
Movement in the darkness.
The lights go back on and...
We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.
And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.
And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.
We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.
As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.
So. Fucking. British.
I swear this is why Brexit happened.
I bet they're all plants.
Every one of them.
They're probably not even real people.
No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.
They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.
It's the only explanation.
But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.
The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."
"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.
I'm still not convinced.
I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.
I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.
As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.
They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.
Something feels off.
Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.
I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.
Bloody Russian bots.
I think I must be the last real person left in London.