The incorporeal manner of cats

The Omnibus Theatre must have the most middle-class "how to get here" instructions in London. 

"You should see a Little Waitrose the opposite side of the road," it lightly trilled - or at least, that’s how it sounded in my head, in the tones of a boarding school housemistress whose fiancee had left her for a nightclub dancer.

I did see a Little Waitrose on the opposite side of the road.

We were off to a good start.

“Follow The Pavement,” it continued. I followed The Pavement. And all the rest of the instructions, until I found the theatre, on the corner of Clapham Common Northside and the very literary sounding Orlando Road, “opposite the Starbucks,” exactly as advised.

This air of quiet gentility continued through the door, as I saw signs for the Common Room which gave off less of an air of Man on the Clapham Omnibus, and more the Girls of Malory Towers. I half expected to see Darrell and Felicity toasting crumpets over the fire.

Oh, god. I could do with a crumpet right about now… Nope. I don’t. What I could do with is stopping thinking about food all the time.

Words. Writing. Theatre. That’s what I should be concentrating on.

Anyway, where was I? Yes. Clapham. The Omnibus. Fine.

I gave my name at the box office, and was handed a laminated token in exchange.

“Seating is unreserved. The house is open now. But there's still time to get a drink.”

A very relaxed statement given the usual rush to get seats when doors open.

This atmosphere extended into the Common Room, where people lazed about on squashy sofas and chatted quietly. No one looked like they were in any particular rush to head into the theatre.


“I do like an arched door,” commented one woman, taking a photo of said arched door. She turned to her companion. “Shall we get a drink?”

Flummoxed by all this tranquility, I too hung back, taking my own pictures of the space. There’s plenty there to photograph. Bookcases, artworks on the wall, big sprawling wooden tables, a bar heavily laden with knick-knacks.

But you and I both know that such serenity couldn’t last. Not in my little anxious soul.

As the clock above the bar sloughed away the seconds, I began to grow restless and I found myself heading over to those arched doors. There was no holding back. I was going in.

After all the arched doors and squashy sofas and bookcases, I’d expected something a little bit different than the regimented rows of neat blue seats that I found inside the theatre.

With the light pouring in from the rear, highlighting the backs of everyone’s heads, it was almost like being inside a cinema. A feeling not helped by the actors already in situ on stage, sat in formation, staring out at us. Watching. Dressed in vintage blacks, they looked a still from a silent movie come to life.

I may have been in all-black too, but mine wasn’t vintage. My own efforts had a distinct lack of black satin flowers. There was no black lace capes draped over a matching black lace gown. No black beaded trim, black ribboned shoes or… Ooo… what was that? Shiny black jacquard? Yes, please! The costume-envy was going to be strong on this one. I could already tell.

Hoping the cast didn’t misconstrue the lust in my eyes, I quickly shuffled into an aisle seat about half-way back for some quality outfit-perving.

But someone was coming down the aisle, blocking my view. Someone familiar looking.

Michael Billington, theatre reviewing royalty. Nay, the king himself. Whatever grain of salt you use on his reviews, he deserves respect. The man’s been a drama critic for The Guardian since before I was born.


It wasn’t press night was it?

I checked.

No. It was the last preview.


Still, I was intrigued to see where the great master would sit. I creeped on him under the guise of reading the freesheet. 

The row behind me. On the aisle.

I congratulated myself on my seat choice. Mid-way back and on the aisle - the critics' choice.

But in all my pretend reading of the freesheet I had managed to not read something.

I went back to it, unsure if I had not read it because I was not actually reading, or not read it because it was not there.

I scanned the narrow pages.

Nope. It wasn’t there. No running time.

Had the woman on box office mentioned a running time? I couldn’t remember. I had been thinking about crumpets.

Was there even an interval?

Considering the play I was watching was primarily set in intervals, this could all become quite meta very fast.

I was there for The Orchestra, where the frenzied back-biting between the musicians takes place in the interludes in their playing.

Or rather, not playing. The music was piped in as the actors bowed, plucked, and pounded at their instruments - not making a sound for themselves.

When a cello was replaced by knitting needles, I craned forward, trying to see if that was being faked too.

“Japan stitch is vulgar,” sneered one of the characters, also leaning in to have a look.

Japan stitch?

I’d never heard of it, but then, I haven’t knitted much since I was a teenager.

I turned to the expert, my fiend Ellen. She knits for the stars of The Royal Ballet. She’d know.

“Ellen - is the Japan stitch vulgar?” I messaged her as the lights rose.

“I’ve never heard of it! It’s a knitting term?” she messaged back a minute later.


Helen was equally dubious. “I reckon Japan stitch is completely made up,” she interjected. “1. Japan doesn’t knit traditionally. 2. If it was a stitch it would be all metaphysical and ineffable and inscrutable and zen and that.”

Well, quite.

But all this lead to another question. Had the play finished? I mean, I knew it had, because we’d clapped and shit. But the other things that happen when plays come to a close had, well, not.

For example, leaving. People weren’t doing that.

The laid back atmosphere of the Common Room had invaded the theatre. No one wanted to budge.

Taking some initiative, I put on my coat and scarf, and as no one made an attempt to stop me, I left.

“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind me as I paused to look at one of the pieces of art on the wall.

Oh, shit. Maybe there really was more.

I turned round.

“Would you like me to explain the artwork?” said the small woman standing behind me.

I did. It looked strange and wonderful. A series of white cloth dolls, perfectly poised on rows of string - like a display of voodoo dolls, available to purchase for the curse-rich but time-poor witch.


“They belong to an art project called Dreams and a Heart. I ask members of the community to fill the doll with dreams,” she said, touching a cloud of cotton wool on the table. “Then we insert a heart and meditate over it before adding it to the display.

“Would you like to make one?” she asked gently.

I did rather fancy sewing a doll, but I fancied going home even more. So I passed.

I'd hate the give the poor things my dreams anyway. It must be hard enough being strung up there without my unconscious thoughts fucking it up.

I made to hurry out, but as I was leaving I spotted something.

IMAG3558 (1).jpg

What the…

There are cats? Two of them? At the Omnibus? And I missed them?

I am outraged, appalled, and frankly hurt that the cats hadn’t made themselves known to me.

This is worse than the ghost hunt of theatre 3/251. Ghosts at least have the decency to exist in an incorporeal manner that might easily escape detection. Cats, on the other hand, have too much fluff to occupy liminal spaces.

I dithered in the doorway. I could go back, I told myself. I might see a cat. I might even see two cats. I might… here my brain took on a zealous tone: I might partake in the making of art!

I cringed.

Ergh. Too much, brain. Way too much.

Stick to thinking up blog post titles from now on, will you?

I am not a number. I am a three man

I’ve been giving a lot of big talk about small theatres in the past few blogs, but this next one looks upon them and sneers at their hulking coarseness. Where the Ambassadors and the Garrick are lumbering about, weighed down by fancy architectural flourishes and Grade II listings, the Union Theatre zips nimbly around them, laughing at their twirly bits.

Twirly bits aren’t the only things they’ve done away with.

When I arrived at the box office (perched on the end of an already small bar) I was handed a large purple disk emblazoned with the number 3 that looked like the sort of plastic tag a bored-looking shop assistant will hook onto your hangers in a shop’s changing rooms.

“Have you been here before?” asked the youngest box officer I had ever seen (I swear it’s not just me getting old).

I had to admit that I had not.

She explained the system. Once the doors open at 7.15, we’d be called into the auditorium in groups. First the 10 people with a number 1 on their disks, then the number 2s, then the 3s etc. Thus ensuring that those who had arrived earliest got first pick on the unreserved seating.

Neat system. I like it. Removes the stress and queuing that so often goes with unreserved seating.

Pressure off, I had the chance to explore.

The Union Theatre doesn’t have a foyer. As you as you walk through the door, you fall straight into a cafe that looks like it was modelled your cool friend’s kitchen. You know the one, the friend who has mismatched cutlery picked up from French flea markets, and collections of found objects arranged in a fresh and original manner, that you feel confident you could emulate in your own home, but you know deep down would only look like a towering pile of rubbish if you ever actually attempted it. The friend who reads Dostoevsky. In the original. But will only roll their eyes if you express amazement at this and ask you what you think about the new Doctor Who. The friend who only looks put together, and yet effortless. At the same time. The friend who would hate if you didn’t love them so much. Yeah, that fucking bitch.


That combined with the massive tables built for sharing and the chill vibes radiating off the staff makes for a really relaxed atmosphere. Tables are filled with strangers as they perch next to each other to read or have a drink. The director was even having his dinner at one.

All this general bonhomie floating in the air must have softened my newly-sharpened corners because I soon found myself in conversation with a fellow theatre-goer on all things Ibsen. Or rather, I was talked to about all things Ibsen. I don’t have a great deal of Ibsen anecdotes at my disposal, so my new friend had to do most of the heavy lifting on that one. Thankfully, before the load of carrying the entirety of the conversation grew too much for them, their number was called and they were off, guided behind the heavy red curtains, through the great double doors, and into the theatre.


A few minutes later, it was my turn.

I tried to get a photo of the inside of the auditorium, but the combo of me being a terrible photographer and the lighting being very… atmospheric (lit: dark. Or rather, unlit: dark) I couldn’t get anything remotely worth looking at. Unless you enjoy peering at murky-dark images, with only the shadows for highlights.

So, let me paint you a picture with words.

It’s a brick-walled room. Seven rows of seats. Green upholstery. Comfy. Excellent rake. Sound desk to the right. Staircase upstage. Lighting rig overhead. There’s a freestanding set that can be spun around to form a building caught mid-build, to a town-hall platform, to the interior of a house. Nifty.

The space is so small, and yes: intimate, that even from my position in the very-much-not-the-front-row I felt utterly immersed in the action.

The good kind of immersed. Not the actors-threatening-to-interact-with-me kind of immersed.

The construction noises were very effective. Really effective. A low rumbling on the edge of hearing gradually grew into a thundering roar until my chair was vibrating as the noise intensified still further and then slowly died down, finalising off with rhythmic metallic clangs. They were very familiar sounding clangs. Very familiar. I could have sworn I had heard that sound earlier that day. And not on a building site.

And that’s when I suddenly remembered that I was sitting inside a theatre built underneath a railway arch.

And the rumble was a train passing over our heads.


It was a bit like stepping out of a dream when I staggered back into the bar during the interval.

I was fully not prepared to chat to anyone, no matter how chill the vibes or communal the large tables.

At these times I would usually bury my head in the programme, but being the spry and nimble theatre this is, there weren’t any.

And then I realised, with no ticket, and no programme, I would have no physical evidence of ever being here. No memento for me to take away.

Oh dear.

This was bad.

What was I going to do?

My boxes and boxes of random crap picked up from theatres was going to be missing a representative from the Union Theatre. My collection would forever be incomplete. What on earth was I going to leave to my grandchildren?

“Do you have, like, a cast sheet or something?” I asked, driven more by hope than expectation.

They did. Tucked away, behind the bar.


Panic over.

Now that I know that they have small bits of paper for me to hoard like a Golem of theatre ephemera, I can confidently make the decision to really like this theatre. I’m going to come back a lot, I think… starting next year.