Those kicks were fast as lightning

As if 2019 wasn't hard enough, we've got yet another new theatre to deal with. Well, you don’t. But I do. And that's bad enough.

The Troubadour Wembley Park. Sister venue to the Troubadour White City, which is currently dark after the... limited… success of the Peter Pan transfer from the National.

It seems the good ole NT have learnt from their mistakes, and are throwing every penny of their marketing budget at the next expedition of one of their shows. The walkway to Wembley is lined with huge banners advertising War Horse. I'm not gonna lie. It all looks fucking spectacular, with those famous arches silhouetted against the night sky in the background.


It's almost a shame to leave the crowds behind in order to turn down the dark and bare side street that will take me to the actual theatre.

Now, War Horse should be a sure bet. It managed to squat in the West End for years, and has done more national tours than I can count. War Horse is fucking amazing. No one is disagreeing with that. Not even me. Which is why it might surprise you to find out that I am not actually here to see War Horse. I'm checking off this venue before War Horse has even managed to step out of the stable.

Not because of timings or anything like that.

I just... can't face it. I do not want to be sitting in a big barn of a room, losing my shit, crying over Joey. Or, even worse. sitting in a big barn of a room, losing my shit, not crying over Joey. Because if the White City branch of the Troubador empire has taught me anything, big barns are atmosphere vacuums. And there's a good chance the story, even though it is epic both in scale and scope, will get totally lost.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong. I haven't even seen the theatre. I'm speculating here. For all I know, Wembley Park’s Troubadour could be a intimate fringe venue, with weekly poetry readings, squashy sofas, and a paddock out back for the puppets to graze happily in.

Something tells me that's not the case.

The Troubadour looms over the Lidl next door. It's red neon lettering is stark in the darkess.

There's a gap in the fencing and I pause, wondering how I'm supposed to get from here, over there.

This must be a common reaction because a security person comes forward. "Shaolin?" she asks.

Yup. I'm here to see The Soul of Shaolin. Because I'm too good for War Horse. Don't want to be crying in some tacky barn conversion in Wembley. So I'm going to be watching some fake-monks instead. And it's not like I haven't even see the real monks. Because I totally have. But here we are. Turning up my nose at puppets while I go watch kung fu.

"We're just checking bags," she goes on, pretending not to notice the tiny breakdown I'm having there on the pavement. "And then you can go in."

I open my bag for her and she has a look inside. The contents being deemed safe, and therefore acceptable, she steps back to let me pass.

"Go to the curtains," she says. "The box office is on the opposite side."

It takes me crossing the courtyard and reaching the massive doorway for me to realise that yes, she really did say curtains, and yes, they really are there. The heavy fabric hangs over the loading-dock sized opening. Presumably to keep the heat in without having the need to result to anything as prosaic as actual doors.


Inside, there, on the opposite wall, is the promised box office. On the far side is the bar, backlit by a series of rainbow panels. Above my head, red and pink neons zig-zag their way across the ceiling.

But, despite the fancy lighting design, I can't help but feel that this place looks really familiar. And no, it's not what you're thinking. It isn't like the other Troubadour at all. The ceilings are three times as high. The foyer four times as big. It's like being inside an aircraft hanger, or... oh gawd. That's it. It reminds me of the factory my parents ran when I was a kid. It has those same grey corrugated walls. The same huge doorways, large enough to back a lorry against. The only thing missing is the smell of melting plastic from the injection moulding machines.

Oh well.

I guess factory-chic is cool. Just probably not for those people whose after-school activities involved fishing plastic brush handles out of the vast cooling tanks for hours on end before falling asleep on the office sofa while waiting for a parent to remember to take you home.


Still, that's my baggage. Not yours.

I press on to the box office.

Both of the box officers are busy so I hang back, waiting my turn.

As one transaction finishes, the box officer looks over and smiles at me. But the customer she's just finished with isn't ready to move on. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, sorting through all the sections to make sure it's worthy of receiving his tickets.

I attempt a step forward, but he doesn't even glance up at me. He's too busy making sure his receipts are in order.

The box officer's smile is beginning to look a little strained.

Fuck it. I'm going in.

I march my way over to the counter, turning my shoulder to indicate to this counter-hoarder that he is no longer welcome here, and he should take his wallet-business elsewhere.

Miracle of miracles, it works.

The box officer and I grin at each other.

"Hi!" I say, feeling very powerful right now. "The surname's Smiles." See, didn't even phrase it as a question. That's how much of gawd-damn commanding I am.

She doesn't even ask my postcode before handing over my ticket. It's clear I know what ticket I'm picking up, and I won't be delayed by nonsense questions.

That business accomplished, I'm off to see what else I can find happening on the factory floor.

There's the bar, of course, but I have no interest in that.

My attention is entirely on what's happening on the other side of the bar.

There seems to be some sort of staircase-action going on. A series of steps, leading precisely nowhere, with the sole apparent purpose of providing seating. It's doing its job marvellously well. Every level is packed with bottoms.


Next to the steps, is a merch desk. I wander over to have a look what's on offer. Troubadour umbrellas and totes nestle up against fans and silk scarves, presumably containing some connection to the Shaolin lot. No programmes though. I double-check the price list. I can buy Buddha beads in three different size variations, but nothing containing a cast list. What they do have, however, is a sign stating that there'll be a post-show photo op for those that drop their coin at the merch desk.

I am a little bit tempted by the fans, but for the price they're charging I could be well on my way to getting one of the fancy Duvelleroy ones I love so much. So I pass.

"The house is now open for this evening's performance of The Soul of Shaolin," comes a voice over the sound system.

I check the time. Too early to go in. But I also seem to have exhausted the possibilities in the foyer.

I walk around, checking I haven't missed anything.

Above the bar is a panel pointing the way to Door One. I get out my ticket. I need door two. There doesn't seem to be a matching panel for door two. The place where I'd expect there to be a panel advertising the whereabouts of door two, is blank. Broken.


I go around anyway, trusting the chain of pointing neon light on the back way to guide me.

Sure enough, there's a door around here. Door 2.

There's a big group here, all fussing about with their tickets.

I hang back waiting for them to finish.

Unfortunately, door two is positioned right on route to the toilets, and I find myself getting bashed by every parent rushing past with a desperate child.

"We're got door one," says a woman walking past, staring at her ticket. "Door one? This is door two."

Another woman comes the other way, also staring at her ticket. "Entrance door two," she reads. "Two, two, two."

They both look up just in time to avoid a collision.

When it's my turn to get my ticket checked, I step forward, feeling a little bit frazzled.

"Thanks for waiting!" says the ticket checker, pointing her scanner at my barcode. "Oh dear," she mutters to herself. "The scanner isn't working."

"It's always my tickets," I tell her. I think they sense my hatred of technology and my fear of the impending takeover of e-tickets. The barcodes squirm under my death-glares.

"Really?" she laughs. "No, it's not you."

Rude. I can totally make a barcode squirm if I want to.

"I'll tell the next person who has trouble you said that. 'It's the scanner. Not my ticket.'"

She laughs again. "There we go," she says triumphantly as the scanner beeps. "Thanks for waiting. Enjoy the show!"

And in I go, Through a twisting corridor made of black curtains, and up a flight of stairs, into the auditorium.

"V14?" I say to the usher waiting at the top.

"Lovely," she says. "It's that way. Up the stairs."

I follow the direction she's pointing, go up the stairs, and look at the seat numbers. They'll all in the forties and escalating.

I don't think that’s right.

Back down the stairs, I pass the usher and go the other way. Ah. That's better. The numbers are all in the teens over here.

There's a film playing on the screen up on the stage. Something about the difference between western and Chinese art. I watch it suspiciously, wondering if I've booked myself into some sort of propaganda performance. The martial arts answer to Shen Yun.

Film finished, a pre-show announcement rings out. No filming. No flash-photography.


The audience takes this as a challenge, and immediately switch their phones to the camera app as soon as the cast comes out.

Most of them remember to turn the flash off.

"Is this a movie?" pipes up the small boy sitting behind me.

"Just watch," says the small boy's dad, getting his phone out.

"Yes, but is it like a movie?"

If it is, it's not quite Crouching Tiger.

The fight scenes may be impressive, but the storytelling comes via a series of long paragraphs, projected onto the back of the stage between scenes, thereby making the actual performance entirely redundant.

The auditorium shakes as people move about, crashing down the stairs as they take loo breaks, or make more permanent bids for escape. It's hard to tell.

A man sitting a few rows ahead of me lifts his phone and starts filming.

An usher sprints into action, standing sentinel at the end of the row and flashing his torch at the ground a few times. it doesn't work.

"Excuse me," he says to the person sitting in front of me, squeezing into that row and making his way along. But by the time he gets there, the phone has been lowered. The usher stands, and then a second later, makes his way back out again.

As soon as he's gone, the phone is raised once more.

The interval rolls around soon enough. The projection changes to tell us that merch is available from the foyer, and they'll be a post-show photo-op for anyone who cares to buy themselves some Buddha beads.

Back out in the foyer, people walk around clutching flyers in lieu of a programme. I don't see anyone with buying beads.

"This evening's performance of The Soul of Shaolin will begin in five minutes. Filming and flash photography are strictly prohibited inside the auditorium."

We head back inside.


"Good evening and welcome once again," comes a voice over the sound system. "May we remind you that filming and flash photography are strictly prohibited inside the auditorium."

The auditorium is a sea of phone screens as act two starts.

To be fair, if you're going to focus on banning the flash, it does rather suggest that everything else is totally fine.

I sit back and watch the rest of the not-unimpressive action, clapping dutifully in between acts.

As we get to the end, a message flashes across the backdrop.

They are not actors, it informs us. They just love kung fu.

That's sweet. Does kinda make me wonder why they insisted on presenting a narrative work rather than just a kung fu showcase, but still: sweet.

"Photo sessions right here if you want to line up!" directs an usher on the way out.

Two small, robed figures, stand, ready to pose.

There's quite a queue already.

Maybe I should have bought a fan after all...

The Umbrellas of Troubadour

“Come on mum, let's go see the shooowwww.”

The plaintive cry wafts over the lawn as I walk towards my next theatre.

The grass is covered by young people scampering about. Their parents looking on in indulgent horror as knees and new dresses get smeared and stained.

I pick my way through their games and cross over the courtyard towards the front door.

I’m feeling a bit like an intrepid explorer right now.

It’s my first time here. It’s most people’s first time here. The place only opened a week ago, making it, quite possibly, London’s newest theatre. I’m not committing myself to that though. With the current rate of theatre openings in this city, four more might have popped up since I started this paragraph.

Still, I’m feeling a little late to the party. I was supposed to be here on opening night. Getting right in there before they had even peeled the plastic off. Except opening night never happened. The performance was cancelled. And this is the closest one I could get. On a Sunday. A day I try to keep free to give myself at least the pretence of having a weekend.

Can’t say it looks much like a theatre, at least not from the outside.

One end of the Troubadour White City Theatre is a blocky, glass-fronted cube. The other is curved like an arctic roll, making me think of those places your parents would drive you to as a kid, and there would be things like laser tag and soft play lurking inside (dependent on what age you are in this memory).

The foyer is packed, the music loud, and the air heavy, despite the huge glass doors being flung open to let in what little breeze there is.


Tungsten lightbulbs hang from the ceiling, and BOX OFFICE is picked out in lights behind the counter, thereby hitting every cliché of theatre design going from the past five years.

A man with a big tote bag over his shoulder walks up and down the queue, handing out paper flags to all the children clinging onto their parents’ legs as they wait. I consider asking him for one, but he moves quickly, and a second later, he’s gone.

I’m left to wait in the queue, alone and flagless.

But eventually I make it to the front, and after giving my name, I’m handed a ticket.

Right then. Time to explore.

The nearest door is marked in huge lettering with T1 DOOR 2. It takes me a good few seconds to work out that T1 is not the end point of a rocket launch countdown, but instead stands for Theatre 1.

According to my ticket, I’m after Door 1. So I go in search of that. I don’t see any signs anywhere. Not for the doors anyway. For Theatre 2 (T2?)? Yes, it’s just over there, further into the space. But door 1? No idea.

As I wonder around, I find the bar. Laden with a backdrop of booze, it doesn’t seem to be quite hitting the family-friendly mark. But perhaps towards the end of the summer holidays, the spirits will be looking a lot more friendly to the grown-up members of the party.

At the end of the bar, there’s a small add on, with programmes and tote bags on display.

A small girl wanders over and picks up a programme.

She holds it up to the merch desk lady and then proceeds to walk off with it.

The merch lady smiles at her, and very kindly explains that she needs to find a parent to pay for it. A parent is duly found, and the programme is bought.

Not having the foresight to have brought a parent along with me, I need to pay for my own programme. It’s four quid. Which is alright.

I go find a pillar to lean against so that I can have a good peruse and see what my four quid has bought me.

“Would you like a Peter Pan badge?” asks a young lady. She’s holding out a plastic cup, filled with tiny badges.

“I would love a Peter Pan badge,” I tell her, never meaning anything so much in my entire life.

“I just knew,” she laughs, and holds out the cup for me.

I pick out a badge at random.

“What one did you get?” she asks.

“Lost boy,” I tell her, reading it.


Apparently, that’s a good choice as she grins and moves on. I’m pleased with it. I love a badge. And while I can’t make any claims to being a boy, I’m more than a little lost in life right now.

“Welcome to the Troubadour White City Theatre,” booms a voice over the tannoy. “The doors to Theatre One are now open. Please enter using both doors one and two and ensure all mobile phones are switched off.”

It sounds like it’s time to go in.

And by the looks of this massive queue, Door 1 is just over there.

I join the end.

Ahead in the queue, someone is asking for a booster seat, and a front of houser goes off in search of them. As he opens the staff door to the cloakroom, my eye catches something. Several somethings. Several bright yellow somethings. A line of bright yellow umbrellas. The old-fashioned kind, with the crooked handle. All handing on a row along a coat rack.

They do look rather handsome. But I cannot fathom why a theatre would have so many matching umbrellas in their cloakroom. Unless the cast of Singin’ in the Rain have popped in to take in a matinee.

No time to think of that, I’ve reached the front of the queue.

“Perfect,” says the ticket checker as she checks my ticket. “Through here and up the stairs,” she says.

I follow her directions, passing through a black-cloth draped corridor towards the staircase.

I emerge half way up a massive bank of seats, stretching down from the stage all the way down at one end, to the very back row all the way at the top. There’s no circle here. Just endless rows of purple seating.

“Row ZA?” I ask the front of houser standing near the stairs. She points me in the right direction. The aisle on the left, and backwards.

I find my seat right at the end of the row, and settle myself down. Jacket off. Badge tucked away in my glasses case for safety. Programme thoroughly flicked though.


“Look, there’s no bad seats in here,” says a bloke as he sits in the row behind me.

“It’s because there’s no pillars,” replies the guy he’s with.

“It’s like a big curved tent.”

“It smells like a new car, doesn’t it?”

It does have that new car smell. As everything just came from the factory. And not just because of the smell. There’s a general feeling of off-the-lineness. The sort of feeling you’d get from somewhere like The Belly, or some other temporary theatre that’s thrown up for a season before being unscrewed, folded up, and packaged away until next year. The walls are lined with black fabric. The seating is clamped down on those moveable platforms that shake if you walk with too heavy a step. The stage feels better suited to a gig than a play.

People come in with multiple packets of crisps clamped between their lips, their hands filled with children and flags.

The guy and the bloke sitting behind me are talking about papering. They must be industry folk.

“Why would press be interested?” says the bloke. “They already reviewed it at the National. They'll just go on about the theatre.”

They better fucking not, that's my job. Critics need to stay in their lane and watch what’s happening on stage. What it feels like to be in the audience? That’s my game.

Some people come on stage wearing pyjamas and carrying instruments. There’s applause, but this space is so cavernous in gets lost in the curved roof high above us.

“Nope,” says one of the musicians, and they all traipse off again.

A second later, they’re back. The clapping is a bit louder this time. There are even a few whoops as the audience do their best to fight against the applause-vacuum.

“So you understand?” says a musicians. “We need to be on the same page, people.”

Yeah, yeah. We get it. And we’re trying! But it’s not all that easy to create atmosphere in a barn you know.

“Welcome to the brand-new Troubadour City….” He says. Then stops. “No. The Troubadour White City Theatre.” That venue name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “We are the Fairy Stringers,” he continues. And then they start to play.

People keep coming in, but I notice no one is sitting on my row.

Now, I didn’t book this seat. I was moved when my performance was cancelled. I don’t know who put me here. The people at the Troubadour White City Theatre, or those at TodayTix, but someone, somewhere, decided that the best place to put a single booker was right on the end of an empty row. I would love to know the logic behind that. It might help me feel a bit less lonely right now.

At least I have plenty of space to sprawl and read my programme.

There’s an intro from the founders of the Troubadour theatres (all two of them).

“Troubadour Theatres are fully accessible and offer an enhanced audience experience with comfortable seating, extended leg room, laid-back bars that are destinations in their own right, and most importantly an abundance of loos!”

Hmm. Not sure about that. The bit about the leg room. I mean, yes, my legs fit, which is not as common an experience as you might think for someone who is five foot three. But I would hardly call the spacing luxurious.

The seats themselves have cup-holders attached to the back, giving a distinct cinema feel which doesn’t quite extend to the comfort of the seats themselves. Again, they’re fine. But that’s all they are. Fine. I’m sat in comfier, plusher, softer, theatre seats.

I wonder what the loo situation is. I’ll have to check them out during the interval.

Our band leader introduces one of the musicians.

“I'm gonna get a bit soppy,” she says. “It's my anniversary on Wednesday and my husband is in the audience so I'm going to sing this to you babe.”

Well all ‘Aww’ dutifully as she launches into a gorgeous rendition of Fly me to the moon, ending with the lines “In other words, Simon, I love you.”


I do love love.

Romance complete, it’s on with the show.

And it’s alright. The kids are loving it. There’s some excellent flying action which extends right out into the cheap seats, which is nice.

All the little ones wave as Pan flies over their heads, and he waves right back. It’s all ridiculously charming, even if it does feel a bit long. Even for me.

I do like Hook’s outfit though. She’s a girl, and dresses exactly how I would if I were a pirate. This Hook might be my new style icon. I’m so putting a tricorn hat on my Christmas list.

Leaving us on a cliff-hanger we are plunged into the abyss of the inerval. I go back out into the foyer, to see this laid-back bar in action.

Again I’m left confused by the enthused introduction in the programme. Yes, the bar is fine. Nice even. But there isn’t anywhere near enough seating for me to class it in the laid-back category, and hidden behind a wall, I can’t imagine anyone wandering in from White City to have a casual drink.

But I do spot something interesting. On the merch side of the bar.


A pile of them.

I creep up, all coy.

The girl behind the desk smiles at me encouarginly.

“Can I get a flag?” I ask, my voice full of hope.

She grins. “Of course!” she says, handing one over.


Giving her my own beam of joy, I scuttle away.

A flag and a badge. The leg room may not be all that extended, the bar not all that laid-back, but the staff are lovely and the swag is top-notch.

As I bounce my way along the foyer, I almost bump into something.

A queue. Another one.


I edge myself around it, looking to see what’s the cause of this line. Are their balloons? The only thing that can beat a badge and flag combo is a free balloon.


Stretching out from the door, past the box office, and right the way to the other side of the foyer, is the queue for the loos.

I think someone needs to tell the founders to have another pass at writing their welcome note.

Not feeling up to joining in with the loo-queue, I find a handy pillar to lean against and look around.

Something bright and yellow catches my eye. There, tucked just behind the box office, are more yellow umbrellas. Two of them.

I stare at them.

Two bright yellow umbrellas. Siblings of the ones hung up in the cloakroom.


The cast of Singin’ In The Rain really must be more careful with their props…

“This performance of Peter Pan will begin in ten minutes and just to remind you that filming and photography is strictly prohibited inside the auditorium.”

Yeah, yeah. Alright. Good thing I already have my photos of the auditorium.

I go back in, settle myself into my empty row, and enjoy the second half of the show.

It’s pretty fucking charming, I must admit.

Especially the “clap if you believe in faeries,” bit that no Peter Pan would be complete without.

Flags wave.

Children howl.

A tiny girl sitting in front of me dumps her stuffed monkey in the seat next to her, scooting herself as far forward as possible, in order to clap as loud and as vigorously as possible, working against the cavernous applause-sucking space as she fights to save Tinkerbell.

Her efforts are rewarded.

The faerie awakes.

And we all go home, content with a job well done.