Who let the dogs out?

I’m back at the Young Vic tonight.

And no, we’re not talking about all that stuff going on. I’m not getting involved. I don’t know what’s going on and I refuse to have an opinion on the matter.

Not that I haven’t been thinking about it. A lot. And talking about it. A lot. It doesn’t help that one of the upcoming shows at my work features a dancer in… that show. I mean, how do you credit that in a biography without sounding like you are taking sides?

No. We’re not talking about it. Not here.

The controversy doesn’t seem to have damaged attendance figures though. The Cut is absolutely thronging with people having a last drink and a cigarette before going in. That Death of a Salesman is a juggernaut, and nothing can get in its way.

I’m not here to see that though.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say to the lady behind the box office. “It’s for Ivan and the Dogs,” I add hurriedly as her hands reach for the larger of the two ticket boxes on the counter. I allow myself a smug smile. It isn’t often I manage to remember the name of a play in these situations.

She nods and digs out my ticket. “Maxine? You’re in the far corner,” she says, pointing off to the other side of the bar.

Ticket in hand, I launch myself into the crowded bar and head in the direction she was pointing. And find myself back in the exact same place I queued for Bronx Gothic on my last visit. The signage, stencilled onto the brickwork, is on the same patch of wall. And the arrow is pointing towards the same door.

I begin to panic.

Don’t tell me that I booked into the same venue twice. Please don’t tell me that.

I check my ticket.

Nope. It’s the Clare. Not the Maria.

Okay then. We’re alright.

There’s an usher on the door. Sorry, scrap that. There’s a member of the Welcome Team on the door. But no one else. It’s too early for the queue to start forming. And I’m not about to start it.

I turn around and go outside, finding a spare patch of wall to prop myself against and check my emails.

I seem to be leaning against some posters. I look over my shoulder to see what they are advertising.

Oh.

It’s Tree.

Because of course it is.

“Are you watching the show tonight?”

I look up. It’s a Welcome Teamer.

“Yes?”

“Death of a Salesman?”

Ah. I see. “No. No. No,” I assure here. “I’m here for the other one.” Which I’ve already forgotten the name of.

“That’s alright then,” says the Welcome Teamer, and she’s soon off rounding up any other wall-hangers.  “Are you watching Death of a Salesman? Are you watching Death of a Salesman?”

I wait a few more minutes, until the start time of the main house show has safely passed, then I go back in.

The bar is empty.

Well, relatively. Can the bar at the Young Vic ever be said to be truly empty?

At the far end, there’s a queue under the Ivan and the Dogs sign.

processed_IMG_20190710_193121.jpg

Not a big one. But then, it’s not a big venue. I hurry over and join the end of it.

A Welcome Teamer makes his way down the line. “I’m going to tear the tickets now,” he explains. “Make it nice and easy when you go in. The show is an hour and five minutes, and no interval.”

I give him my ticket, and he rips off the stub. And a large chunk of the actual ticket. But no matter. I may be precious about getting paper tickets, but what happens to them afterwards doesn’t bother me. I probably don’t need to tell you that I am the sort of person who cracks the spines of her paperbacks and folds down pages to mark my space. Adds character, you know.

The line is growing, almost reaching the box office now.

We wriggle and flow, breaking apart and shivering back into place, as people squeeze past us.

“Beep, beep!” says a staff members pushing a flat trolley. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The queue goes into Red Sea mode, parting for him and then splashing back into place as soon as the Deliverer of Trollies has passed through.

I jump aside for people going to the loo. For a waitress returning plates to the kitchen. For Welcome Teamers. More piss-takers. And more bar staff.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says a waitress as she moves nimbly through the queue up towards the bar.

Honestly, the Young Vic really need to get this queue situation sorted. It’s impossible. I hope it’s next on the list after… well… you know.

I use the time to massage my hands. Work is really doing a number on me at the moment. I thought it would be the marathon that would kill me, but now I think my job might get in there first. Eleven pages of programme amends typed up before 10am this morning, and my hands are cramped the fuck up.

“Hi guys!” says the Welcome Teamer on ticket duty. “If we could make a little room for my colleague here,” he says, leading the way for the trolley pusher, now with his vehicle laden with two huge bins full to the brim with empty wine bottles.

We all shuffle out of their way, reforming the queue in their wake.

“Have I ripped you?” asks the Welcome Teamer as the trolley pusher disappears through the doors. We all nod. All ripped round here.

As one, the two Welcome Teamers open up the double doors with such ceremony I almost expect there to be a trumpet player on the other side ready to launch into a fanfare.

Instead the cry of “Has everyone been ripped?” reigns out as we walk through.

“Just remember to turn off your phone,” comes the voice of a Welcome Teamer as we make our way down the hall. “Straight down and to the right.”

I try to work out were we are in relation to the Maria, but it’s dark and this place is a labyrinth. I just focus on following everyone else and not getting lost.

Straight down. Turn right.

And there we are. The Clare. Bright and shining after so long in the dark.

A Welcome Teamer in a red polo shirt is handing out freesheets. “Wherever you like,” he says, indicating the multitude of options there are with seating.

The stage is a small square, set in the middle of the room at an angle. Around in, on four sides, are four matching banks of seats. Two rows. Seats set into wooden fortresses. The same colour as the walls, which look like someone has been having a lot of fun with panels of plywood and a nail gun.

I pick a seat in the second row, on the end, so that I’m forming a point of the diamond.

The seats begin to fill up.

“If you’re holding drinks,” announces the Welcome Teamer, “keep hold of them and don’t put them on the floor.”

“What did he say?” asks my neighbour.

“Don’t put your drinks on the floor,” her friend replies, with an audible roll of the eyes.

I say fair enough though. There isn’t much legroom and cups are liable to get kicked down there. And with all this pale wood… well, I wouldn’t envy the poor sod attempting to scrub red wine out of it.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts inspecting it. “This doesn’t tell you what it’s about,” she says. “It’s just who’s in it.”

I open up my own to have a look for myself. She’s not wrong. There’s a cast list. And two biogs. One for the writer. One for the director. Nothing about the actor… which seems like a strange decision to make when there’s only one of them.

No dogs I notice. I do enjoy a dog on stage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the top things I enjoy seeing. I’ve even been known to book a show on the strength of its canine casting. I would say the same about cats, but I think I’ve only seen a cat once on stage. In an opera. She was called Girlie and she was very talented. Really captured the essence of ‘cat’ by sleeping and then running off stage.

“They’ve added in these seats,” my neighbour continues. “I wonder if they had complaints.”

Yes, I was wondering about that. Not the late addition of them, I’ve never been in this space before. But their arrangement. Actual chairs, sunk into wooden structures. Their legs hidden in the box below. “Before you just sat on it,” she explains.

That doesn’t sound all that comfy. This arrangement is much better. Even if it is a little bit odd-looking.

processed_IMG_20190710_194752.jpg

The actor, Alex Austin comes out and perches on the edge of the stage. He looks sad. I’m not surprised. Probably got a look at those freesheets.

The Welcome Teamer is hanging out the door, peering down the dark corridor, on the lookout for latecomers.

Someone does come in.

She takes one of the reserved seats, just across from me. She gets out a notebook and positions it on her lap.

Time for another round of Blogger or Director? Nah. I recognise her. No missing that fabulous hair. So shiny. Straight out of a Pantene ad. She used to work at my work. And now look at her! A fancy director.

The lights dim.

Austin gets up. He’s ready to tell us a story. A story of fists and fear and running away. A story of hunger and hiding. A story of dogs.

He pauses, grinning as he looks around the audience, after telling us about how the white dog ate his potato.

We all aww in response. A couple sitting across from me look at each other and smile.

We are all utterly charmed.

The lights flash back on. I’m left squinting against the brightness. Austin turns around, holding our stares, not allowing us to blink.

I curl round my shoulders and try to hold his gaze against the onslaught of the light, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

Just as my poor eyes grow used to this blazing light, the theatre dims once more.

Austin finishes his story. A few snuffles make their way around the audience.

He’s moved on. Started a new life.

And at the end, it is the empty stage that gets the spotlight.

Our applause brings him back though. He bows in one direction, and then the other, before bouncing off the stage and out the door in a gigantic leap that he must have learnt from the dogs.

It's a damn cold night

It’s Monday and I’ve decided to be nice to myself today. Got a new top which I’m rather pleased with, and I’m wearing my favourite boots and my big gold hoops, and I’m feeling rather swish. I even put a massive satin bow in my hair, which is making strangers on the tube smile at me. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who enjoys being smiled at on the tube, but here we are. I must be getting soppy in my old age.

I’m taking this rather nifty outfit and me to the theatre tonight. Of course. I take myself to the theatre every night. But tonight is special because we’re going to one of my favourites: the Young Vic.

Now I’m not saying it’s my favourite because I love the work there, although I totally do. Or at least, I did. It’s hard to say now as they have a new AD and I’ve haven’t had the chance to check out what Kwame Kwei-Armah has been up to yet. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, rather cack-handedly, is that I really love the theatre. The building. The staff. The location. Everything.

You always get the feeling that they are looking after you there. That they have the audiences’ back. They call the front of housers the Welcome Team, which is the type of theatre wankery that I don’t personally have a lot of patience for, but I also recognise that this title was not created with people like me in mind, and that it probably does go a long way to welcoming the type of people that require a team called the Welcome Team.

Whatever they’re called, they’re great.

Always lovely and helpful to the above and beyond level of loveliness and helpfulness. Like, ridiculously so. I was once, many years ago, handed a pair of cupcakes when picking up my tickets because I’d been chatting with one of the box office team on Twitter forever and he’d fancied getting his bake on that day.

As loveliness and helpfulness go, home baked cupcakes are hard to beat.

Do you remember when Twitter was like that? When you could have a proper natter with the theatre social media accounts? Back before content teams were a thing, and you still knew the names of every person tweeting behind the official handle. And the not so official handles. Back in those days, the Young Vic had an unofficial account run by one of the box office team: @YVTeaBitch. Actually, thinking about it, it was the Tea Bitch who baked those cupcakes. It’s all coming back to me now. Carrot cake. With lots of cream cheese icing. They were bloody good.

The account is gone now. Properly gone. Not just dormant. Pity.

It would never happen today. If you were handed cupcakes by box office, there’d be someone with a smartphone standing by to capture the #theatremagic. And there is no way in hell an unofficial, and slightly sweary, theatre account could be allowed to bumble along without interference from the office-bods for so long.

2013 really was a heady year.

Anyway, enough about the past. We’ve moved on, haven’t we? It’s 2019, and I’ve got a theatre to get checked off the list.

“Sorry,” says a lady, stepping in front of me to stop me just as I’m rushing to cross the road. “Where’s the Aldwych Theatre?”

I point in the direction of the nearest theatre. “It’s that one,” I say before hurrying off. The countdown clicking its way to the lights changing.

Behind me I just hear her say, “They’re showing The Lion King!”

Shit. I just pointed at the Lyceum.

Which is, in case you haven’t noticed, not the Aldwych.

And it’s not like I don’t know where the Aldwych is. I went there last week. It’s in the friggin’ Aldwych. Clue is in the name and all that.

I really need a fucking holiday, I can tell you that.

Oh well. She’s gone now. Disappeared into the crowds. She’ll be okay. The good people at the Lyceum will see her right, I’m sure.

Failing that, she can watch the Lion King. It certainly can’t be worse than Tina - The Tina Turner Musical. I might have actually done her a favour.

I sprint across the road, the lights shifting to amber before I’m even half way across, the guilt chasing me safely to the other side before the cyclists run me over.

I cross my arms to keep my jacket close to me as I brave Waterloo Bridge. It’s really windy, and freezing. How did it get so cold so fast? My hands are completely numb. I’m beginning to regret wearing my new top today. It’s not exactly insulating. It’s made of mesh. The wind is going right through me. As for my ridiculously large ribbon, let’s just say that hair ribbons and windy bridges don’t mix. And that even soft satin can be a bit owie when it gets whipped in your face at fifteen miles per hours.

The strong breeze blows me half the way to The Cut, and I stumble the rest of the road by myself. There’s a lot of people out here, standing around in front of the theatre. There always are at the Young Vic. I can never tell why. The bar at the Young Vic is pretty famous. I can’t imagine wanting to stand around in the cold when there’s somewhere nice to sit down inside. But what do I know. Perhaps standing outside in the cold is the new hip thing to do.

There’s a bit of a queue at the box office, but they are zipping through it. I barely have a chance to snap a photo of the mirrored ceiling and the old tiled walls (left over from the building’s former life as a butcher shop, which is a fact which I’m fairly confident that I am not making up).

“Are you collecting,” asks the bloke behind the box office.

I tell him that I am.

“Is it for Death of a Salesman?”

Unfortunately not. “No, the other one,” I say, the name of the show completely evading me. “The one in the studio?” I can’t remember the name of the studio either. It’s not even a studio, really. It’s a whole ‘nother theatre.

No matter, he gets what I mean, jumping over to the smaller of the two ticket boxes.

“What’s the surname?”

I give it.

“And your postcode?”

I pause a fraction too long before my postcode decides to make an appearance in my brain. Blimey, that was scary. Not remembering the name of a show I can deal with. I was never much good at that. Pointing at the wrong theatre could just be classed as tourist-based-arseiness. But my own postcode? I should definitely be able to recall that. This marathon, man… It’s getting to me. It really is.

He nods. I got that one right. Phew.

“Just head through there,” he said, indicating the direction, “and it’s on the left. The doors should be opening in about fifteen minutes.”

There’s already a bit of a queue by the doors to the second theatre space. (The Maria, I remember that now that the high-pressure stakes of ticket negotiation are now over). Seating is unallocated, so it pays to get in line early. Seems everyone else got the memo too, because within minutes that queue is stretching right across the bar and all the way back to the box office.

It’s also blocking the loos. I’m conflicted about the loos. There’s a sign stating that visitors are free to use whichever loo the they feel most comfortable with (with the added bonus of gender neutral toilets upstairs), but annoyingly, they are really inconveniently located, right next to the doors to The Maria.

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

It’s only been a few minutes, and I already feel like I’ve excused half of London as I jump forward and back to let people through to the facilities.

A front of houser in a red polo shirt comes through. Sorry, I mean: a member of the welcome team in a red polo shirt comes through.

“Just wave your ticket at me at the door,” she says, taking my ticket and ripping off the stub. “Goldfish brain.” She hands back my ticket. “It's an hour and twenty straight through.”

Nice.

“Excuse me please,” says an old man.

I step back as far as I can go without trampling the person behind me.

He stands there, looking at me.

I stand there, looking at him.

“Well, go on then,” I say, rather rudely, and wave my hands to indicate that he should pass.

He bows his head and scuttles through.

I mean, really.

The lights above the bar are flashing. Death of a Salesman is going in. The bar begins to clear out as audience members head to their seats.

The Welcome Teamer returns. “I've done all your tickets, right?” she asks the queue in general. We all nod. Our tickets have all been shorn of their stubs.

Another old man appears. This one holding his hands in a prayer gesture, begging to get through.

I’m rather fed up with being the gatekeeper to the loos, and I sigh as I step back for him.

A second later, he returns, pushing through the queue in the other direction.

“Fucking idiot,” says a man standing behind me. “Realised the show was about to go in and that he didn’t need to go all that much after all.” He pauses. “Twat.”

The doors are opening.

As instructed, I flash my ticket at the Welcome Teamer. She nods. “Down to the bottom and turn left,” she says.

I follow the line through the brown corridor, down to the bottom, and then turn left.

The space has been sealed up with high white curtains. There’s a small gap and we each make our way through and into the theatre.

There’s another Welcome Teamer in here. “It's unreserved seating,” he says, handing me a freesheet. “Move down the rows please, as we’re sold out tonight.”

I don’t even have to think about it anymore. Third row, right at the end. It’s my spot now.

I take off my jacket and settle down, looking around to take in the space. You never know what you’re going to get in The Maria.

For Bronx Gothic, it looks like we’re getting a floor level stage, with raked seating on two sides, so that the stage forms the last quarter in this square space. All surrounded by those high white curtains, sealing us off from the world.

Carrier bags hang limply from the lighting rig above our heads, and lamps are strewn across the floor, as green shoots spurt out from underneath their shades. There’s even a small knot of grass working its way up from beside the front row, as if we have found ourselves in a forgotten ruin, given over to the unstoppable plant life.

And in the furthest corner, Okwui Okpokwasili.

She stands, shimmering and shimmering, facing away from us.

Body shuddering, shaking, as her hands twist elegantly with controlled rotations, she’s in her own world. One far away from the audience taking their seats behind her.

People are still coming in, through two different entrances.

The Welcome Teamers rush about as they try to keep their streams separate.

“How many of you are there?” the Welcome Teamer on my side asks a young girl as she leads in a big group.

The benches are filling up fast. And they don’t want to be split up.

He looks around and points. “There’s a whole row over there,” he says, and they traipse up towards it happily.

The lights are gradually fading. The darkness creeping in minute by minute.

I’m also happy with my choice of seat. The rake really is marvellous here. I can see clear over the tops of the heads of the people sitting in the row in front, with plenty of room to spare. The tallest person in the world could sit in front of me and I’d still have a great few.

This is what I mean about the Young Vic looking after their audiences. Ignore the loos. The location of the loos were a mistake. But here, in the theatre, someone, at some point, thought about how people would sit on these benches and would need a clear view of the stage. A surprisingly rare stop on the journey to show creation, judging from the seats I’ve been sat in this year.

The lights have dimmed to extinction.

The show has begun.

But the audience isn’t. One person pops through the white curtain. The Welcome Teamer closest to me jumps from his seat and motions for the newcomer to walk around the stage and join him in the front row. A second later another person appears, and he is also manoeuvred deftly into the front row.

Okpokwasili turns round. After ignoring us for so long, we are now the subjects of her gaze.

She shimmers and shakes, her head tipped back, her eyes fixed, still and then roving.

With a jolt I realise she is looking straight at me. She holds my gaze. The seconds stretch on into an uncomfortable eternity, before she moves onto someone else. I follow where the path of her eyes. She’s getting all of us, one by one, drawing us in.

And then she stops. The shimmering shakes stilling. Her muscles slackening.

She has a story to tell.

Two girls. Passing notes. One teacher, the other pupil. One beautiful, the other ugly. One ignorant, the other wordly.

Okpokwasili prowls around her corner square, explaining her choice of words. “You know what they mean when they say they’ll slap the black right off you?” She pauses, examining the line of white people sitting in the front row. “Well, maybe you don't,” she says.

The lights switch back on, blazing white. Then crash us back into darkness.

A Booming sound grows in pitch and volume until it becomes painfully loud. I want to cover my ears. Just as it becomes unbearable, the stop. The silence rings throbs through my body.

Okpokwasili’s tale skins in circles, doubling back on itself and picking up threads as it goes.

And then we are released.

“Just go straight on past the crowd,” says a Welcome Teamer as we make our way back down the brown corridor. “It's the interval for the other show, so it’s very busy.”

It is. So is the pavement outside. I rush down The Cut, catching my breath in the square opposite the Old Vic.

So much for a gentle start to the week.

Read More