Ah, the glamour of the West End. The bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. The hoards of French teenagers hanging out with Eros. The shops heaving with Union Jack merch. You can't beat it.
Honestly, I can't think of a better place to watch a musical, set in Peckham, and based on a TV show that aired its last episode before I was born.
If you hadn't guessed, I'm off to see Only Fools and Horses. Only Fools and Horses the Musical, I should add. Because, yup. It's a musical. Something that managed to escape me until I saw one of the banners outside the theatre, buffeting in the wind.
I'm not sure who thought that what Del Boy was lacking as a character was a heartfelt ballad, but someone did, because it's now a thing. And I'm here to see it.
At the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
What ever happened to the Haymarket?
No, I'm not dissing their programming choices. At least, not right now. I just mean, wasn't there a thing? It was for sale a few years ago, right? And, like, wasn't there a Kickstarter to raise money to buy it? On behalf of a collective that would use it to programme female writers. Or something like that.
Anyway, it's clear from where I'm standing on Suffolk Street that they were not successful. Which is a shame.
Not that there's anything wrong with the idea of Only Fools and Horses. The Musical.
Full disclosure, I actually really loved that show as a kid.
It was one of the few things we would watch as a family. That and Are You Afraid of the Dark.
Yeah, there was always quality TV playing in the Smiles household.
Back in the early nineties, it took a lot to convince my Mum to switch over from the newly launched QVC. But she was always down for a rerun of whatever classic Trotter-tale was on that afternoon. We'd sit together, giggling away, having great fun, until the end credits would roll and a second later Joan Rivers would be trying to sell us a necklace covered in glittery eggs. I sometimes used to wish that Derek Jason would join the Midnight Society to help stop the curse of home shopping.
I jostle my way through the Phans crowding the opposite pavement on their way to Her Maj's Theatre and head in.
The Haymarket has that classic West End layout which keeps all the different tiers separate, with different entrances for each of the circles to ensure that there is no disgusting mixing of the classes.
What it doesn't have, is any indication of where the box office is.
I examine each of the doors, and pick the one in the middle because it doesn't have a queue.
I find myself in the foyer, and here I find the queues. Two of them. One on the left. One on the right.
"Err, box office?" I ask the nearest front of houser.
He points to the one on the right.
Ah. Yeah. Of course. I should have guessed that. It's the classic hole-in-the-wall arragement. My favoruite kind.
I give my surname and get a ticket in exchange. No fuss. No questions. Easy.
That done, I go back outside to see what door I need to go through.
Upper Circle and Gallery? Nope.
Private Boxes? Nope.
Royal Circle? That's the one.
I join the line, and find myself queueing to get back into the same exact foyer I just left.
At least I'm getting the full Haymarket experience I suppose. Bag checks and all.
"I'm just going to need to check your bag," says the bag checker. "If it's full to the brim we might need to move some stuff."
It is full to the brim. I carry around a lot of stuff. Including the programme from my matinee today. I hope he doesn't notice that.
"Do you mind if I look under here?" he says, pointing to my scarf which is buddled up on top of the pile. I move it for him. "Lovely," he says, as he has a little poke around in what must be the most gentle and well-handled bag check I've had on this marathon. No squeexing of bottoms and touching things without permission here. A fully consensual bag check. Very 2019. I like it.
"Now," he says, as I zip up my bag. "You go through the door right in front of you."
And I'm in.
But I don't go through the door right in front of me though.
I have another stop to make first.
The merch desk.
This was the queue that confused me earlier, but there's no queue now.
"Can I get a programme?" I ask the lady behind the desk.
"Of course!" she beams. "That's ten pounds."
Blimey. "Blimey." I'll admit it's been a while since I did the West End. But still. Ten pounds. Fucking hell. "Okay," I say. What else can I do but agree? I mean... I'm eight months into the marathon. I can't baulk now. And it's not like I haven't paid more.
"I like your purse," she says as get out my debit card.
I thank her. It is a nice purse. It's in the shape of an elephant. I've had it since I was at uni. He's looking a bit sad and creased now, but he still makes me smile. So he stays.
"Are you looking forward to the show?" she asks brightly. I can see she's doing her bestest to help me recover from the price-shock.
"Yeah, kinda," I say, feeling guilty about not being more enthusiastic.
It's not her fault that I'm only here for marathon reasons.
"I know what you mean," she says, nodding sympathetically. I'm not sure she does, but I'm really appreciating the effort. This is customer service excellence. Whoever is doing the training at the Haymarket needs one hell of a payrise. And perhaps should consider tackling the staff at the Soho as their next project.
"I'm sure it is," I say, trying my best to be positive. "I just have like, a mental block or something."
"You'll come out smiling," she promises before offering me a receipt.
I hope she's right.
I go through the door, as directed, and start walking up the stairs. They're well fancy. Custom carpets with the letter H woven into them topped with little crowns.
At the top, a front of houser steps out to intercept me. I show him my ticket.
"Great," he says, all smiles and friendless. "Just through the door ahead and on the left. Bars and toilets are down there," he says, pointing off to the right.
A second later a programme seller stops me to ask if I know where I'm going.
This is starting to get a bit intense. I'm not used to all this niceness. It's like Pret love-bombed all over the theatre. Soon they'll be offering me free coffees and tweeting me heart emojis.
I find my seat without further assistance and settle down in the front row to find out exactly what ten pounds means in the world of programmes.
I'll give them this: it's hefty. Lovely paper stock. And some great artwork. They have Grandad's army discharge record, dating profiles for the characters, the menu of Sid's Cafe, and a whole double-page spread of classified ads from the Peckham Echo. They sure had a lot of fun making this. And perhaps all these cute bits are worth ten quid to a superfan. However, this musical is supposed to be set in the eighties. And yet the classified ads are full of mobile numbers, and even worse, 020 area codes, which I'm sure I don't need to remind you, weren't a thing until 2005.
I put the programme away and concentrate on the theatre. It's really lovely in here. All chandeliers and paintings of naked nymphs. When the choice came to go big or go home, they went big. And then bigger. It looks like the decorators were in a Rococo-off in who can add the most twiddly bits to their sections. And better yet, it's haunted. So, you know I'll be keeping an eye out for theatre ghosts.
My neighbour arrives and she is very dressed up. Matching bag and purse. One of those tweedy Chanel jackets. Hair is freshly blown and she's carrying a Selfridges shopping bag on one arm and a suited-up boyfriend on the other.
I hide my battered black rucksack under my chair.
As I take in the rest of the audience, I realise that I am properly underdressed, which is not a feeling I get all that often. I like my clothes. I like to dress up. In dresses. Sometimes skirts. I literally don't even own a pair of jeans. I only have one pair of trousers, which I dig out if I need to hike up a cliff or something, but otherwise, it's all skirts and belts and vintage trinkets. But my studded clompy boots are marking me out as a slob in the midst of all these kitten heels.
The lights dim. There's an announcement.
Switch off phones, pagers, and walkmans. Because noise isn't "pukka or cushty."
That gets a giggle. And with the audience still laughing, we're off. And... it's exactly what you'd think it would be. An extended episode of Only Fools. With songs.
And yes, that includes the theme music, which everyone in the audience joins in enthusiastically with.
I mean, everyone apart from me. Because I don’t do singing.
As the set rotates to take us inside the Trotter residence, there’s a coo as Grandad appears in his chair. But my neighbour's bloke isn't having it. "That's not Paul Whitehouse!" he mock-whispers to Chanel Jacket.
Oh dear. Someone left it a bit too late to book their tickets, and missed out on the original cast. Probably was too busy matching her shoes to her bag.
Despite being set in South London, they make full use of their position opposite Her Majesty's Theatre and take every opportunity to mock Phantom of the Opera, even sending Rodney and Cassandra off on a date there. Which is a nice, gentle, in-joke for those whose only knowledge of theatres are the ones they say on the way in from the tube station.
It's the interval now, and I'm not sure I really want to be the goth-girl lurking in the bar, so I stay where I am, drinking in the Roccoco joy. As the auditorium empties, I peer into all the dark corners for any sign of spirits, but the only ones I spy are in the hands of people making their way back from the bar.
I bet the real ghosts all being kept busy by the ushers. Having their ectoplasm mopped up and the being sent to sit on the naughty step when they try and scare an audience member.
"Sorry, can I be a nuisance?" asks Chanel Jacket's bloke. Without Chanel Jacket. But with Chanel jacket. He drapes it over the edge of the circle. Carefully folded.
An usher comes over. I get excited that she might be here to shoo off a ghost, but no, she wants the tweedy jacket removed. Chanel Jacket's bloke drapes Chanel jacket over her seat instead.
When Chanel Jacket returns, she rummages around in her bag and pulls out a folding fan. It's already half unfolded. She flaps it around it its half-cocked state and I begin to grow suspicious about the matching accessories and tweedy jacket. I'm not sure how a woman can rise to such levels of sartorial splendour without learning how to flick open a fan properly.
I'm just about to offer to teach her, but she twists round in her seat, digging her knees into my leg, and I decide that I'm not cut out for the world of fan education. So I let her flap it around ineffectually. An impressive outfit ruined by terrible fan skills.
We're back in Peckham now, with the cast doing their mostest to give us a good time and Tom Bennett's Del Boy always ready with a wink for the audience.
And after a rollicking sing-along as a send-off, and one final dig at the Phantom, we're sent back into the West End.
But Peckham with forever remain in our hearts.