Wish: Granted

Thank the theatre gods for BIG The Musical. 

I was beginning to get a bit worried here. 

The Dominion Theatre has been dark for a very long time. Since the first week of January. I’d meant to get myself to Bat out of Hell before it closed, but as the final performances loomed the prices shot up and there was no way I was paying 80 quid to see… whatever that musical was.  

The months rolled on. 

I’d walk past the shuttered venue, peering into the glooming looking foyer every time I walked down Tottenham Court Road, until I began to regret my cheapness. 

Eighty pounds wasn’t that bad. Not when the fate of an entire marathon rested on it. 

Prince of Egypt announced it wood be moving in. But not until 2020. 

I don’t mind admitting that I was getting a bit panicky. 

But then, blessed relief. BIG The Musical was coming to London for a limited season. I held out. Not buying a ticket. Cheapness gnawing at my heart once again. 

I needn’t have worried. TodayTix had my back. A 24-hour ticket offer. Fifteen quid to sit in the stalls. Not bad at all. 

So, yes, thank the theatre gods for BIG The Musical. But all hail TodayTix and their ticket offers. 

This is my first visit to the Dominion. Not only did I miss Batty, I also missed every other previous show. And by missed, I mean: actively avoided.  

So, it’ll be nice to get a good look at the place. 

As I approach the entrance, a bag checker mimes opening a bag and I take the hint. He doesn’t find anything of interest inside, so I’m allowed through. 

The foyer of the Dominion is huge. Double height. With a staircase either side leading over to a balcony overlooking the massive space below. It’s all red and cream and brass and really looks like that hotel in American Horror Story. I look up, fully expecting to see Lady Gaga selecting her victims from the cattle below. 

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No such luck. 

In the centre of the lobby there are two podiums staffed by programme sellers. Or perhaps the more accurate description would be lecterns, so tall there’s a built in box at the back of the for the programme sellers to stand on. 

I still need to get my tickets, so I pass them and follow the sign to the box office. 

“Collecting?” asks a man in a suit who seems to be in charge of the queue. 

I tell him I am. 

“There’s a window free just past those people there,” he says, pointing the way, past the main box office, and into a tiny dark corridor with box office windows all down one wall. I’m not sure on the capacity of this place, but it’s built for scale, that’s for sure. 

I find the next free window, and give the box officer behind it my surname. 

“Do you have a confirmation email?” he asks. 

I mean, I do. But it’s from TodayTix, so there ain’t no reference numbers or anything. I bring it up all the same and hold it up to the glass for him to see. 

He squints at it. 

I wonder if I’m showing him the right bit. I have a look and scroll down to see if there’s more pertinent information going at the bottom of the email. 

“No, that’s fine,” he says. “I’ve got it.” 

And off he disappears to recover my ticket. 

Ticket in hand, it’s time to get me a programme. 

I go back to the lecterns. 

And stop. 

Because I have just spotted the price. 

Ten pounds. 

Ten actual British pounds. 

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by now. I’ve been lobbed with higher bills before. But still. Ten pounds. That’s a lot of money for a programme. 

“Do you take cards?” I ask one of the programme sellers, because of course your girl has not got a tenner on her. 

“Yes, but over at the other desk,” she says, pointing over to the other lectern. 

Okay then. 

I go over to the other side and get myself a programme, paying ten (ten!) pounds for it. 

There isn’t much else of interest going on out here, so I head back, down the steps, towards the stalls. 

There’s a merch shop down here. An actual, proper, shop. Not a desk tucked away in some corner. It’s full of BIG-branded stuff. T-shirts and sweatshirts and teddy bears and lanyards and mugs that might rival Sports Direct in their proportions. But I don’t pay attention to any of that, because I’ve just spotted something far more interesting. Over there. On the far side. It’s a Zoltar machine. And by the looks of it, it’s not just there for decoration.  

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I go over. The sign stuck on the front says it’s two pounds for a go. Well, I just spent a tenner on a programme, I’m not about to wimp out on two quid on this. 

I get out my purse, find the coins, and then stare at the machine. Not sure how I’m meant to do this. I put them on the little slot and try to shove it in, but the slot ain’t having it. 

“Oh my god, someone’s having a go!” a young man standing nearby exclaims. 

“Trying to!” I exclaim right back. 

A woman comes over to have a look. “Here, I think they go in those slots,” she says. 

She’s right. They do go in those slots. 

A second later, Zoltar starts waving his hand and chattering on about it being better not to reveal too much and other mystic sayings. The pair of us stand there, watching him, until a full minute or so later, a fortune pops out. 

I have a look. 

Apparently, my lucky month is August, which is just great now that it’s September. Got a long way to go before my luck comes in. Hopefully I can hold out until then. 

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Shoving the fortune into my pocket, I make for the entrance to the auditorium. 

“XX?” says the ticket checker. “Down this aisle and you’re on the left.” 

Turns out, row XX is really far back. The Dominion is one hell of a big theatre. I almost consider using those binoculars stuck to the bottom of the seat in order to see the stage. 

The rake isn’t great, with nothing but the most gentle slope happening between the rows, but the seats are at least offset, and I find myself with a great little view in between the heads of the people in front. 

My neighbour isn’t quite so content. 

Leaving her partner behind, she chivvies me out of the way to go and sit in one of the empty seats further into the row. 

A plan soon thwarted by the row in front starting to fill up. 

She moves further in. 

But the people sitting in front have the same idea, and a game of musical chairs starts up between them, as they all try and get an unobstructed view. 

The house lights buzz and flicker dramatically, and then go out. 

The show begins. 

These people clearly spent a lot of money here. The set is huge, with screens and multi-storey buildings and set changes between every song. 

A big set for a big theatre. Pity there isn’t the audience to match. 

Even with the £15 offer, it’s looking a bit thin back here. And judging from the very localised applause patterns, I’d say a good chunk sitting over on the far side work for the show. 

This is my cue to say something like: no matter, I’m having a good time. But the truth is: I’m not. I do like the film. It’s a great story. What it doesn’t need though, is songs. And they aren’t even very good songs. Not a banger in the mix. And seemingly written with the premise that everyone on stage needs to have a go. 

When that scene comes around, the one with the piano, the one that has made it into the show artwork, it is done via projection. And the notes that emerge have no relation to the movements of the performers. The big whoop from the contingent on the far side is taken up by the rest of the audience, but the enthusiasm isn’t there. It’s hard to get excited about a faked-up set piece. Half the joy of live theatre is the potential to go wrong. Knowing that the keys would light up, and the notes play, even if both key-hoppers sat down and shared a sandwich half-way through, doesn’t do much to get the old heart racing. 

Interval time. 

I get out my programme to see what ten pounds has bought me. 

Not a lot. 

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I mean, sure, it’s massive. But content wise, there’s nothing there. Biogs. Production shots. That's it. Not even an article to read. 

For that price, I’d at least expect some fan service, like what Only Fools and Horses managed to do in there’s. But the closest this one has is asking the cast what their Zoltar wish would be. Not particularly inciteful, and honestly, best suited to a blog post. 

As people return from the interval, there’s a lot of seat hopping as everyone tries to upgrade themselves. 

I spot the separated couple six or seven rows ahead of me, now reunited. 

And I find myself in the happy position of having no one sitting in front of me.  

Sadly, it doesn’t do much for the show. 

But plod on we do, and the end eventually rolls around. 

During the curtain call, I lone woman stands. She waves at the cast. I think she must know one of them. 

But as we are launched into a truly unnecessary finale, more people stagger to their feet. Some to leave, others to ovate. 

I hold out until the cast members wave us goodbye, disappearing behind the rotating set. But as the band strikes up once more, I cannot stick it any longer. And make my escape. 

S.O.S.

I seem to be spending a lot of time in the West End at the moment. Mostly because all the super-fringey theatres haven’t got anything happening over the summer months, but also because there just aren’t enough tourists around to fill up all those long-running shows and there are offers going all over the place. 

As I make my way down the Strand, I spot a large queue outside Waitress, aiming itself at a tiny podium with the TodayTix logo on it. Now, I love me a bargain on TodayTix, I really do. This blog is testament to that. But when a theatre needs a whole queue just to accommodate buyers coming through a single, solitary, app, you do have to wonder if they overshot on the pricing. 

Oh well. No time to worry about that. 

I’m back in the Aldwych tonight, which I’ve come to think of the road that houses all the shows that I would never, ever, visit outside of the marathon.  

We’ve already had the Tina: The Tina Turner Musical chat. 

Now it’s the turn of its neighbour, the Novello. 

Yup, I’m off to Mamma Mia. 

May the theatre gods preserve us all. 

“Yeah, sorry, there’s loads of people taking photos of some theatre,” says a young woman, striding past on her mobile. 

I lower my phone. 

Yeah, she got me. 

But I’m not the only one. 

I seem to have found myself within a small gathering of amateur photographers, all aiming our phone cameras upwards at the Novello façade. 

It’s a nice façade. Paned glass and lots of swaged foliage carved into the stonework. The window-frames are lit up with a pale-blue glow that would be more fit for Frozen when that opens next year. It all looks very glamorous, somewhat at odds with the show that lives inside. 

“Here, stand here,” orders a woman to her two daughters. “Let me get a picture of you to post on Facebook.” The pair of them make matching expressions of disgust. “Don’t worry,” she assures them, “I’ll edit it first.” 

This appeases them enough to stand and pose in the small island in the middle of Catherine Street, as lines of black cabs rattle by on either side. 

I dart in between them, past the sisters who are still in model-mode, and over to the opposite pavement. 

There’s a large queue stretching out of the curved doors and working it’s way back down the pavement, sealed off by a Mamma Mia branded barrier. 

I join the end of the line. 

It moves fast enough. There’s two bag checkers and they are peering at our stuff as if we were all on the conveyor belt of The Price is Right, and coming up behind us is the cuddly toy. 

Inside the foyer is a mass of movement as people try to figure out where they’re going. 

There’s the merch desk on one side. A concessions stand on the other. And something else a bit further back, which I can’t quite make out but has one hell of a queue. 

“Box office?” I ask the young woman on the door as I gaze in horror at this heaving crowd. 

“Are you buying or collecting?” 

“Collecting.” 

“Just here,” she says, pointing to the big queue at the back. I inch myself through. There seems to be two counters, set behind windows in the wall. My favourite kind of West End box office, but all these people are setting off my anxiety, and I can’t tell where the queue even ends. It try to follow it back but somewhere along the way it appears to have looped back on itself. 

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“Who’s waiting?” comes a voice from the middle of the crowd. It’s a front of houser, and she’s doing her best to impose some form of crowd control, but there’s nowhere for them to go. 

No one answers her. They’re all too busy shoving in opposite directions. 

I squeeze myself towards her. 

“Just here,” she says, pointing to one of the windows. And just like that, I’m giving my name to the box officer, and skipping the entire line. 

“Maxine?” says the box officer, checking the ticket. “That’s one in the balcony.” 

It’s a nice ticket. Got the show artwork on it and everything, which is something I appreciate. Love a bespoke ticket. 

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That done, I double back for the merch desk and ask for a programme. 

“Would you like a small one for 4.50?” she asks, indicating the display on the counter. “Or both for ten pounds.” 

Did I hear that right? A small one and a big one for ten pounds? I’ve always disapproved of this trend of selling souvenir brochures on top of the programmes. Yes, you can justify them as appealing to different audiences – those that want to read about the cast, and those that want big shiny production photos. But let’s be real here. Theatres want to empty your wallet, and will use any trick they’ve got to pour your coins into their till. But both for a tenner sounds like a fucking good deal. Those brochures can go for fifteen quid on their own. 

Not that I want a brochure. I’m an old school programme gurl. I like my cast list, and my creative biographies. I like articles. And words. And yes, the odd pretty picture. But not enough to spend an extra fiver and change. 

I settle for a small one. 

That done, it’s time to go upstairs. 

A not unfancy staircase, which makes a change from the usual route to the cheap seats. There’s carpet. And portraits. And even a bar. 

A nice bar! 

It’s large. With seating, and windows overlooking both the Aldwych and Catherine Street. The very windows I had admired from down on the pavement. 

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I’m a bit early so I plonk myself down at a window seat, a not unpleasant place to sit after the crush downstairs. 

Two bar staffers serve the few audience members who have made it up here, taking care to explain everything with gentleness and patience to the touristy clientele. 

“The programme is this one,” says one, pulling a copy of the shelf to show woman at the bar. “We don’t have the brochure here, but if you’d like it I can give you a receipt and they have the brochures inside. So they can give you one. The small one has the cast. The brochure is the bigger one, and has the pictures in it.” 

“Yes, pictures…” 

“You’ll want the brochure then.” 

“Okay...” 

“Separately the big one is eight, but you can get them together for ten pounds.” 

“And I have to go inside?” 

“You can buy them both here. I’ll give you a receipt and you can just show it to them, and they’ll give you a brochure.” 

I use the opportunity to look at my own programme. 

There’s a cast change slip already placed inside. Looks like we’ve got a few people out tonight, not that it makes much difference to me. I couldn’t tell you who anyone was in this show. 

Apart from the biogs, and an interview with Judy Craymer (who apparently is the creator, but isn’t credited anywhere else in this thing), it’s pretty much the same programme I’ve bought at every Delfont Mackintosh theatre this year. I put it away in my bag and look around. 

There’s a rather handsome wallpaper lining the walls, with golden Ws resting amongst equally golden laurel leaves. 

That’s strange. I wonder if they had a couple of rolls left over from the Wyndham’s refurb… 

I should probably go to my seat. 

Up some more stairs, and there’s a ticket checker up here. 

“Lovely,” he says, far too enthusiastically when he notices that I’ve already torn away the receipt and address portions of the ream. Honestly, theatre-goers really need to start doing this. Save your ticket checker some papercuts. He folds over the stub and tears that off. “Straight up the stairs here,” he says, nodding towards the closed door behind his shoulder.  

And up I go. 

There’s another ticket checker on the door to the auditorium. This one looks rather flustered. She’s talking to an equally flustered-looking audience member. 

“You’ll need to go to the box office and speak to them,” says the ticket checker.  

“Downstairs?” 

“Yup, you’ll need to go all the way downstairs, and make your way up again before the start of the show…” 

“But should I go down...?” she asks, sounding a wee bit stressed. 

“Well, you’ll need to speak to them…” 

“Right.” And off the audience member goes. 

I offer the ticket checker my torn ticket and a sympathetic smile. 

“Front row,” she says, waving me in. 

As I make my way down the steep steps, I spot the stressed audience member. “Let’s go,” she says, touching her partner’s shoulder. 

“Are you sure?” he asks. 

“You need to be able to sit!” she insists. 

That’s true. You do need to be able to sit. 

Limited legroom has taken another victim tonight. 

That’s not so much of a problem for me. Yes, my knees are bashing against the boards in the front row, but they’ve suffered through worse over the past eight months. I’ll survive. 

I distract myself by looking around. 

It’s a shame I’ve never been in here before. It’s a nice auditorium. Very Edwardian in its excess. All marble and cherubs and even gargoyle faces, leering at us from their nests.

There’s even a chandelier that looks like a dropped trifle. It’s magnificently ugly.

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And Ws. Again. Large ones. Set in golden wreaths. 

That’s strange. 

I get out my phone and search for the Novello’s Wikipedia page. 

Turns out this place used to be the Waldorf Theatre, which explains it, I guess. Thing is, it hasn’t been the Waldorf for over a century, and only had that name for four years anyway. You’d think they’d have updated the wallpaper already. 

The Novello name is because old Ivo had a flat here back in the day. A legacy that Cameron Mackintosh seems keen to continue as he’s having a penthouse set up somewhere in here. I do like the idea of living in a theatre. Not sure I’d pick this one though. While I appreciate a good ABBA singalong as much as the next person (as long as I’m not actually expected to singalong), I’m not sure I could cope with Supertrooper blasting out every night while I’m trying to eat my dinner.  

Over the tannoy, there’s a proper old Big Bong. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Please take your seats. This evening’s performance will begin in five minutes. 

“... three minutes. 

“... two minutes.” 

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The house lights dim. There’s an announcement. Turn off your phones and whatnot. Plus a warning for those with a “nervous disposition,” that this show contains “platforms and white lyrca.” 

With that terrifying thought, we begin. 

Not that most of the audience seems to have noticed. 

Chats continue. 

Phones stay out. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience which gives less of a shit as to what is going on onstage. 

My neighbour jerks in her seat, getting out her phone, the need to check her messages too great to sit still. 

She leans over to her friend and whispers something. 

The friend grabs her bag and retrieves something. A tiny squeeze bottle. She hands it to my neighbour. 

My neighbour pours the contents into her hand. Finds her phone again. Switches it to selfie mode and then... proceeds to reinsert her contact, picking and proding at her eye, the phone on her lap.

I have never seen the like in a theatre, and in truth, I’m a little impressed. 

Exhausted by these antics, she spends the interval slumped down in her seat, curled up under her coat. 

Again, I’m impressed. 

These seats are narrow and highbacked, extending well above our heads. 

I now have a new appreciation for the Queen. Turns out thrones aren’t all that comfy. 

I stay where I am. I’m not all that convinced that on leaving this row, I’ll ever be able to get back in. 

The five-minute warning goes. Then three. Then two. Then one. 

We’re back. 

My neighbour hauls herself out of her slumber, but within a couple of songs her head is sinking gently down, nodding out of time with the music. By the wedding, we’re in real danger of her falling asleep on my shoulder. 

I will the cast to sing in double time and rap this story up. 

We make it. My shoulder free of sleep-induced slobber. Thank the theatre gods. 

The keyboard players in the pit wave at the cast, and the cast, in turn, reach down to shake the keyboard players' hands.

As we traipse down the stairs, I can hear Mamma Mia blaring, and I wonder if I’m missing an encore, but no. It’s coming from outside. A rickshaw, parked on the pavement, and with his soundsystem full blast.  

That’s one way to do marketing, I suppose. 

I really hope Mr Mackintosh likes listening to ABBA in bed... 

 

Back to Hogwarts

I don't want to get your hopes up, but I think there's a strong possibility that Autumn is here. The terrible reign of that blazing ball in the sky is over. No longer will I have to suffer the indignity of the t-shirt. I can wear real clothes now. Nice clothes. I don't mind telling you that I just spent the best part of an hour trying things on. Because tonight, Matthew, I am going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and I need to be the Gothiest Goth that ever Gothed, or die in the attempt.

And I think I've found the one.

It has a high lace collar. It has long sheer sleeves. It has cinched cuffs. It's perfect.

My eyeliner is sharp.

My boots stompy.

I am peak Goth.

I mean, personal peak. I'm not ready for an undercut or a lip piercing quite yet.

I put my 49er on top of the whole thing, and, not gonna lie, I look frickin' adorable.

As I walk to the tube station, a little girl hangs out of her window. "Hello. Hello. Hello," she shouts. "Hello, fashion lady!"

Which has to be, by far, the nicest thing shouted at me from a window.

No time to dawdle though. The Palace Theatre peeps are strict as hell.

I got, not one, but two emails, that stated, in no uncertain terms, that I should pick up my ticket, at the latest, one hour before the show starts. Now, I'm sure you'll agree with me, that this is completely ridiculous. There is no theatre in the city, not even the London Palladium, that is so chaotic that it requires a 6.30pm pick up for a 7.30pm curtain.

So, I decide to ignore the advice.

And turn up at 6pm.

The box office at the Palace is round the side of the building, on Shaftesbury Avenue. It has it's own separate entrance, which leads into a good-sized room, with a row of counters on the far side, tucked behind glass. It's almost like stepping into a bank.

There is exactly no queue.

The lady at the nearest counter looks up and gives me a great big smile, so I go over to her.

"Hi! The surname's Smiles?" I tell her.

"Lovely," she says, getting up from her seat. "I'll need a reference number and ID too."

"Okay," I say, grabbing my purse in readiness.

She's on her way back, tickets in hand. She looks at them. "Actually, it's just ID, because you won the lottery."

Yeah, I did! For the first time ever, I managed to win of those TodayTix ticket lotteries. No luck with The Lehman Trilogy. Didn't anywhere with Present Laughter. Had to get up at 3am to see Fleabag after failing again and again with that one. I was beginning to think that TodayTix didn't like me. Which, considering how much money I've been throwing at them this year, is a wee bit rude.

But they came through for this one. All hail Harry Potter and the Friday Forty.

"Oo, I like your purse," says the box office lady as I show her my ID. "Lovely," she says checking it. "Doors open at 6.30. Enjoy!"

And with that, I'm back out on Shaftesbury Avenue.

It's about ten past six.

I should probably go and do something.

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I walk around, having a look at all the second-hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road. More than a few of them have a dedicated Harry Potter section crammed at the front of their window displays. This whole area seems to be running on a Harry Potter based economy. There's the newly opened House of Spells shop, with doormen in jacquard coats that scared me so much I didn't want to go in, and the House of MinaLima on Greek Street, which I'm sure was supposed to be a popup shop, but has grown some serious roots. In the Foyles playtext section, there are enough copies of Cursed Child on display to stage your own mini-production.

I circle back through Soho to the theatre.

There's a big sign out front. Someone is proposing to their girlfriend at the show. That's nice. I mean... it's utterly abhorrent. I don't understand public proposals, at all. But if they're into that, good for them. I wish them a long and happy life together.

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But more importantly, there's now a queue, snaking it's way down Romilly Street and around Greek Street. I should probably join it.

The queue moves quickly.

Signs tell us to have our bags open and to definitely not, no don't even think about, bringing in food.

Next to it, a homeless man sits. He has his own sign. He's trying to sell an illustrated copy of the first Potter book. "Any real offer is cool."

The Harry Potter economy is hitting hard.

We round the corner. The front of the theatre is cordoned off with crowd control barriers. One by one we are waved in, directed to tables of bag checkers.

"Any food or drinks?" asks mine as I dump my bag on the table and open it for her.

That gives me pause. I mean... I think we all know that these checks aren't for security anymore. They're protecting their bar sales, not our bodies. But I never thought I'd get an actual admission on the line. This marathon is full of surprises.

"No," I say, knowing full well I have a slightly squished protein bar in the side pocket.

"Any sharps?" she asks, digging her hand right in.

"No." I'm not sure my cutting wit quite counts.

"And food or sharps?"

"No."

"No?"

"No."

"Okay," she says, and waves me on.

Next up there's a line of black-suited security guards. They have body scanners.

Blimey. That's a first.

"Arms up," says one, putting out his arms in a cross to demonstrate.

I follow his lead, lifting up my arms, my bag still dangling heavily from one hand.

He runs the scanner over me. It must have beeped or flashed, because, without warning, his hand is in my jacket pocket.

"Oh," he says, after finding nothing in there except the reminiscence of an old tissue.

He let's me pass.

Feeling ever so slightly violated, I finish the security part of the entrance examination.

It's time to get me through the doors.

The first one has a Hufflepuff checking tickets. I can tell she's a Hufflepuff because she's got the house colours on her lanyard. All the front of house staff do at the Palace. Have house coloured lanyards I mean. On my first trip here, way back when the show was still in previews (and yes, I am showing off, thanks for asking) I got chatting to the ushers and was informed that they are very serious about the whole house business here. The staff all need to get sorted on the Pottermore website, and there's no switching just because yellow doesn't suit your complexion.

I head to the next door. There's not much of a queue here, but the ticket checker is a Gryffindor and I ain't dealing with that bullshit today.

At the third door there's no queue. But there is a Slytherin ticket checker.

Or perhaps that should be: at the third door, there's no queue, because there is a Slytherin ticket checker.

I immediately rush over and show her my ticket.

"On the far side, down the stairs," she instructs as she tears my ticket. "There are bars and toilets on every level."

"Thanks!" I say, way too excited. I hold back the urge to shout "Go Slytherin!" as I bounce through the door and into the foyer.

The merch desk is right oppsite the doors, selling all the house colour stuff. I already have a fair bit of Slytherin gear and those scarves are expensive, so I decide not to test my overdraft any further. Besides, they save all the best merch for Part 2.

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Instead, I go straight to the programme desk.

There's a sign over the top stating that programmes are "Just £5." Which, you know, isn't bad. Cheaper than a Slytherin house scarf anywway.

One of the programme sellers spots me. "Are you waiting?" he asks.

He's wearing a Slytherin lanyard. I don't know why it is that the 'puffs have the reputation for being loyal. In my experience, it's the Slytherin's who are always looking out for one another.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask him.

"Of course!" See? He's got my back.

I hand him a ten.

"Perfect!" he says, and I keep a close eye on him as he gets my change. Let's be real... I would trust a Slytherin with my life, but not my fivers.

Still, I wonder if I can go the entire evening only interacting with Slytherins. That might be a fun challenge. I mean, yes, it does sound a bit, well, Voldemorty, but this is the third time I've seen this show. I need to inject a little bit of danger into this trip.

Down the stairs, there are more programme sellers down here. And a concessions desk. You'd think they'd be selling stuff straight off the Hogwart's Express trolley, but no, it's the same boring old trash you'd find at any theatre. I move on.

Down some more steps, and into the bar. An Aladin's cave of gold paint, pillars, and mirrors, all held together my a menagerie of naked-lady mouldings.

It's still really early, so I find an empty corner and start people watching.

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There aren't too many people dressed up down here. The queue was full of young‘uns wearing house t-shirts, but they don't seem to have made it down to the stalls.

I spot two ladies wearing all access passes round their necks. Not sure what those are or what they have access to, but I sure as hell wouldn't be wasting them on the stalls bar if I had them. I'd be off backstage somewhere, stealing me a sorting hat.

The bar begins to fill, and my quiet corner is under threat of attack from all sides.

I look at my ticket. I'm to use door 2 to get into the auditorium, and look, just on the other side of my little enclave is a sign pointing the way to door 2.

I follow it.

After the gilded glory of the bar, I'm whisked into a very plain corridor. The only decoration a pair of shelves, with numbered plaques, which I can only assume will be holding interval drinks in few hours' time.

I keep on going. Up some stairs, and down to the end of the hallway.

There's a curtain, and through it, the theatre.

It's nice. It's well named. Very... palacial.

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I make my way down the side of the stalls towards the front row. Oh yeah, ya gurl has got herself a seat in row AA tonight.

I'm very excited about it.

I mean, the stage is high so I'm going to miss a hell of a lot of stuff happening at the back, but it's okay. I've seen this twice before. Once from mid-stalls, and the second time from somewhere in the balcony. I know what's going on. I'm just going to appreciate being able to see all the stage-trickery up close, and yup, from my spot at the end of the row, it looks like I'll be able to get a little glimpse into the wings.

This is going to be mega.

I take off my jacket and settle in.

Train station sound effects are being piped in, and it's amazing how soothing they can be without the added ambience of thousands of commuters all collectively hating each other.

Trunks and suitcases litter the stage, so you just know there's magic happening, becuase they wouldn't last five minutes unattended in the muggle world without someone calling the bomb squad.

A voice comes over the sound system.

The performance is about to begin.

There's a whoop.

Turns out, I'm not the only one super-pumped to be here tonight.

"You're all seated in the quiet zone," continues the voice. "So turn off your phones now. I mean now."

The order not to each any crunchy crinkly snacks also gets a cheer. This audience is hardcore about their theatre-going. They don't want to miss a moment. Maybe that's why there aren't any Pumpkin Pasties on offer (although, there should totally be Pumpin Pasties on offer. Come on now, it's September. I need my recommended daily dose of pastry).

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Anyway, the play starts and it's just great. I fucking love Harry Potter. Like, I taught myself HTML when I was 12 years old so that I could code my own Harry Potter fansite. That's how long I've been in the fandom. Literally most of my life.

And I don't care what the haters say about Cursed Child. So what if it is retconning the books? I don't give a shit.

I adore Scorpius and I would die for him.

He is literally the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life.

Although I'm not quite sure whether I want to kiss him, mother him, or quite possibly, be him.

Hopefully not the first one. He is a child, after all. The character I mean. Not the actor. I checked.

Still, it's all rather confusing.

Whatever it is, Jonathan Case is doing a splendid job up there. And I'm so happy I could burst...

There's a crash. For a second I think it must be my heart exploding. But no, it's way too big a sound for that.

People are turning around in their seats. Whatever it was came from behind us.

"Lights! We need lights!" comes a call from one of the circles.

A few seconds later, the house lights are going up.

The cast press on. We try to concentrate but the drama happening in the higher levels cannot compete with what's happening on stage. I mean, Jack Thorne's great and all. But this is real life.

Eventually, the house lights dim once more, and we fall back into the goings-on at Hogwarts. And soon I get lost in the waft of cloaks as the performers swish about right in front of me.

I have to say, the movement is marvellous. If this lot ever give cloak-swishing classes I'm going to be first in line because they are giving the Bolshoi-boys a run for their money.

Applause fills the auditorium.

Interval time.

Within seconds a queue forms down the central aisle for ice cream.

An usher comes out to make an announcement. "It's cash only," she says. "Ice creams are three pounds fifty each. If you need to pay by card you need to go down to the bar."

No one is paying attention. Everyone is busy talking about the show.

"I like when the witches come on and do the thing. With the cloaks," says the girl sitting behind me,

"Me too," says her friend.

Me three.

"I loved the trolley witch," says the friend. "Did you see the two people in the dark? They just went like this then whoomph."

I nod along to their conversation. I also enjoyed the whoomph.

"They got rid of my story," says the girl, presumably while scrolling through the Cursed Child Instagram. "There was a proposal. Did you see it? And my story got bumped."

She doesn't sound super impressed.

"Did they say yes?"

"I don't know..."

I have a look at the programme.

You have to admire their commitment to the whole "keep the secrets" schtick they got going on. Not only is there a spoiler warning on the cast list, but they also put one on the preceding page, just in case your eyes land on a character name by accident. And it's not like we don't know they couldn't have sold two programmes if they didn't have a mind to. So, double kudos to them. I kind of wish they had taken the Hampstead Theatre approach to suppliers though. Back when Brandon Jacob Jenkins’ Gloria was playing, you had to go find an usher in the interval to cut open the seal on the spoiler-giving programme pages, which was super cool. Not that I did it. My Gloria programme remains in mint condition. Because I am exactly that type of programme nerd.

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Another announcement is piped in. This one from Professor McGonagall herself. Well, Blythe Duff but, you know.

"For the sake of the wizarding world, please turn off any muggle devices," she begs us.

We get through the rest of Part 1 unscathed.

Well, almost. The final scene sends cries of horror throughout the auditorium (and some wet feet in the front row).

As the "to be continued..." banner lights up the empty stage, the level of excited chatter is so loud I fear this lot won't make it through to tomorrow night's performance.

"Please use all the doors," calls an impatient usher as we try to shuffle our way out. "We're closing the doors in two minutes! We'll see you tomorrow."

Yes, you will. I'm not leaving my boy Scorpius stranded in that situation.

Too hyped to even contemplate being cooped up on the tube quite yet, I skip through Piccadilly Circus and make my way to Green Park.

There's a lot of great shit going on in theatre right now, but for me, Cursed Child is where it's at. The stagecraft! The story! The... Scorpius! Okay, it's all Scorpius. I really love that blond boy.

Which reminds me: that proposal... It was a publicity stunt to advertise a dating app. Little fuckers.

Love is cancelled.

And I think I might need to bleach my hair.

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Close Every Door to Me

Oh good lord. What the fuck is going on here? What the actual fuck...?

There are people on the pavement. People in the road. People standing in the way of cars, and people who are going to get run over if they are not careful.

I've never seen any thing like this.

No, wait. That's not true. I have seen something like this.

Not outside of protests though.

It's like a friggin' anti-Trump rally out here.

What the hell is going on?

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"This is the Royal Circle and boxes queue only," hollers a man walking down the line on the opposite pavement. "Stalls are one queue along, and Grand Circle is two along."

Oh. Okay. So apparently getting into the London Palladium now involves queueing down the street. Which is strange. Because I've been to the Palladium before, and I've never encountered scenes that look as if they've been lifted straight out of a textbook on hyperinflation.

I join the queue for the stalls. I have an e-ticket for some reason, and I'm not happy about it, but I'm not about to go trotting off to the box office when there's this going on. Ten minutes arguing for a paper ticket might see the queues stretching all the way down the street, across the road, and into the Liberty habadashery department.

I tell myself it's good practice for post-Brexit Britain.

We shuffle forward inch by inch, the woman behind me muttering with every step.

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It hasn't escaped my notice, that my queue, the one for the stalls, is on the opposite side of the road to the theatre. It hasn't escaped the notice of the people standing in the queue, while also, at the same time, standing in the middle of the road. Nor the notice of the taxis, trying very hard to drive through said road.

"Stupid people thinking they can get through here," she says the woman behind me. I don't know whether she's referring to the taxi drivers or the queuers here. Or possibly: both.

As it's our turn to cross no-man's land, a pretty girl in a multicoloured shaggy jacket runs out to pose in front of the theatre signage. You got to respect a gal who not only dresses to theme, but also puts her life on the line for a photo. Instagram models are the heros we have, but don't necessarily want.

I make it across the road without getting run over, thank the theatre gods. The woman behind me also makes it across unscathed. I'm unclear about the gods' motivation on that one, but I suppose they have their reasons.

"Have your bags ready. There's checks both in and out the door," booms the queue-controller as I reach the doors.

"Can I just...?" asks the bag checker. She pokes around inside a little, prodding at the top layer with a single finger. "My colleague will check your ticket."

I get waved through the door and I pull my phone out. E-ticket it is then. I pinch my fingers and zoom in, instantly losing the barcode. Technology is not my friend. "Where is it...!?" I mutter as I search around the pdf for the damn thing. The ticket checker laughs, then beeps my in as the barcode sneaks into view.

I wind myself down the cream-coloured corridors, past the surprisingly subdued merch desk and into the bar. It's a very fancy bar. There's a twisting staircase, lots of old posters on the walls, and a display case with a model of the Palladium inside, topped by showgirls.

And a queue. Another massive queue. Stretching from the doors to the auditorium, round the corner and all the way back.

A front of houser comes round, via a shortcut. "Entrance to the stalls this way," she says, beckoning us forward. I'm immediately rammed in the back as the person behind me rushes up the steps.

I let him go ahead. He must be gagging to sit down.

Eventually, I get to the doors. There are two sets, with a tiny lobby in the middle. Like those porch areas people tack onto the front of their semis. Somewhere to keep the pram and the bikes and wellies and whatnot. Except here they're keeping a bottleneck of audience members, trying to squeeze through too many ushers.

I show the nearest one my phone. "Standing?" I ask.

"Head to the left," she says, pointing left. "And stand behind the gold bar."

Well, alrighty then.

I head left, walking down the back of the stalls, past the tech desk, past an endlessly long row of seats until, yes, there it is, a short gold bar right at the end.

There are a few people standing already. I dump my bag down next to them, as close to the middle as I can get.

It's very high. Too high for my five foot three inches to lean on. I could just about rest my chin on it if I had a mind to.

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And then I realise something. I haven't seen anyone selling programmes.

I look around at the people sitting in the stalls. Prime programme-buying audience members. But none of them have one.

I scan the room for an usher, but there aren't any in here. They're all in the bottleneck.

Oh well. That's what intervals are for, I guess. Gives me an excuse to check out the merch desk.

Looks like the girl sitting in front of me has already hit it up. She's wearing a Joseph t-shirt with technicoloured text all over it.

I never know how I feel about wearing show merch to the actual show.

It demonstrates dedication though, and I respect that.

Unlike the man sitting in the row ahead of her. He's wearing a Thriller Live t-shirt. I turn away. I can't even look at him.

There's an usher standing behind me. He's not holding any programmes. "Are you with the five?" he asks, indicating the group next to me.

I shake my head. So does my neighbour. We don't know these people.

"Would you mind moving over to the other side? There's supposed to be ten on each side be we have eleven over here."

My neighbour picks up his bag and goes off to the other side.

Turns out, his sacrifice is not enough, because the usher is back. "Are you on your own too?" he asks me.

I almost laugh at the thought of me managing to convince someone to come stand with me at a weekday matinee performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I'm sure this musical has a hella lot of fans. I'm just not friends with any of them.

"Do you want me to go over?" I ask, maintaining my composure like the theatre-going pro I am.

"If you don't mind," says the usher, very apologetically. "You'll have more space."

Turns out, that was a lie. The standing area down at the other end is full. I walk all the way to the end, where the golden bar turns into a solid wood panel and ask the woman on the end to squidge up a bit.

She stares at me blankly.

"Sorry," I apologise. "I just got moved here from the other side. Can we all move down a bit?"

Her stare continues. I wonder if there is something wrong with her eyes. She's not blinking.

The usher comes over.

"Can we make room for the lady?" he says in the polite tones of a front of houser who ain't taking no shit today.

One bloke shifts over and a squeeze into the gap.

"Did you not pay the money?" says the guy on the other side, his hand buried in a pot of Pringles.

"Sorry?"

"I thought you didn't pay the fee."

"Sadly, I did buy my ticket," I tell him. "They just had too many people standing over the other side."

Satisfied, he goes back to eating his crisps.

As the lights dim, there's a big cheer from the audience. They're so excited the air is almost crackling. Oh, no. Wait. That's my neighbour finishing off his Pringles.

Nevermind.

Still, Sheridan Smith gets a round of applause all to herself when she comes out. I join in. I do like Sheridan Smith. She was everything in that Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic. And yes, I did need to pick out her one significant non-musical theatre role to mention here. Because I am a pretentious twat. We long ago established that.

And I have to respect that she's the one cast member all in black, standing proud amongst a cast dressed in colours so bright it's making my retinas bleed just to look at them.

I'll admit, Joseph isn't my favourite Lloyd Webber. It's too... just too. Too bright. Too twee. Too school-playish with all those kids wearing fake-beards. It doesn't work for me.

Plus all that thing about dreams... I only have sympathy for the brothers. I'd sell my little pipsqueak sibling too if he insisted on telling me his boring-arse dreams every morning.

I do like the song where he's in prison though. I can fully support Joseph having an abandonment crisis in a dark cell while wearing only a loincloth. That's my jam. Right there.

As soon as the interval hits, I race back through the bar, down the cream-coloured corridor, and towards the merch desk.

There isn't a queue, and the woman behind the counter gives me a big grin as I approach.

"Hello, love!" she say.

I ask if I can get a programme.

"Of course, you can, my love. Would you like a standard programme or a brochure?” She points at the two options on the counter. The brochure is very large. Twice the size of the standard programme, and no doubt, twice the price.

"Ooo," I say, pretending to be making a decision. “Standard please."

"That's five pounds."

I fish around in my bag for my purse, which no matter how I pack it, always manages to sink to the bottom. "Sorry," I say, as I realise I'm taking far too long. "So much stuff!"

"Here, shall I move this so you can out your bag down?" she says, shifting over the programmes so that there's a free space on the counter.

It helps. I find my purse, and pay the monies.

She laughs, suddenly noticing what i’m wearing now my bag isn't in the way. "I love your t-shirt!" she says.

It is a good t-shirt. And worthy of a giggle.

At first glance, you may think it's one of those ubiquitous Joy Division t-shirts. But, oh, you would be wrong. The unknown pleasures of the pulse waves are interrupted by... cats. Lots of cats. And it says "Meow Division" across the top, because of course it does.

I take my music very seriously.

I go back to the bar.

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"Yes, she's a big star over here," says a woman, trying to explain who Smith is to her friend. "She's a big TV celebrity."

Sheridan Smith? A big TV celebrity? I mean... yeah, but like... didn't you see here at The Old Vic?

I get out my programme, just to check the facts. And huh... Smith's biog doesn't mention Hedda Gabler. I begin to wonder if I imagined her Ibsen-phase.

"Ladies and gentlemen will you please take your seats. The show will resume in five minutes."

I quell the desire to reply: "Thank you, five."

I go back to my standing place.

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The unblinking woman hasn't returned. But crisp-man has. With a packet of popcorn.

An usher makes his way down the aisle carrying a big white plastic bag. He dips down so people can chuck their rubbish in, giving an half cursey at every row.

The band start up, playing a medley of the act one songs.

A huge chunk of the audience clap along.

The conductor turns around to grin at us. He's having fun.

Everyone is having fun.

Spontaneous applause breaks out at seemingly inconsequential parts of the plot. Laughter rolls over the stalls with every campy move of the cast. As Smith encourages us to clap along in one number, and everyone enthusiastically joins in, it occurs to me that this might now be a standard weekday matinee. The fan-presence is high, and the end of the run is nigh. I might have found myself at a muck-up matinee.

At the final notes, everyone gets to their feet to applaud.

I'm already on my feet, so I let them get on with it.

It's time for the megamix, and people sit down to enjoy this blast through all the bangers of the show.

The stander who came with me from the other side sticks his fingers in his mouth and let's out a blasting whistle. "Well done, kids!" he shouts as the smaller members of the cast come forward.

"Do you want some more?" shouts Smith over the roar of whoops and hollers.

The roar grows even louder. Turns out they do.

"Come on! Do. You. Want. Some. More?!" repeats Smith, pumping her arm to indicate that we should be louder.

Yes, Sheridan. I think these people want more.

"Your turn now," she says. "Come on. Do whatever you want."

A woman in the front row gets to her feet and starts dancing. "Yes!" shouts Smith, pointing at her. "Go girl!"

A few more people join in and Smith gives them approving comments too. Soon everyone is back up and dancing. Or at least clapping.

Lights flicker around the audience.

Streamers descend on the stalls.

Dancing. Clapping. Singing. Music.

And then it's over. The cast wave as they disappear off stage. The three leads, Smith and Jac Yarrow and Jason Donovan, hand back to fling there arms around each other. And then they're gone too.

I decide to take their lead and slip out when the band are still blasting our their finale.

Living in revolting times

It is incredibly hard to get a photo of the Cambridge Theatre.

I don't claim to be a great photographer. I'm very much a point-and-clicker when it comes to this kind of thing, so when I say it's difficult, I don't mean it's hard to get a good photo of the Cambridge Theatre, I mean it's hard to get any photo.

This is not an issue of light (although I wouldn't exactly call Seven Dials a sun-trap) or finding somewhere to get a good angle from. No, it's people.

Here I am, standing in the small cake-slice corner between Monmouth Street and Mercer Street, lining up a great shot, and people keep on getting in the bloody way. If it's not tourists attempting to squeeze themselves between me and the lampost, it's bikes riding up on the pavement. And when those people have cleared, it's the Instagram girls, posing in the middle of the street, while their friends risk their lives to crouch down with their DLRs to get the perfect shot of Insta-babe's outfit against the background of Matilda the Musical.

As I wait for the photo shoot to finish, someone rams their suitcase into the back of my legs.

I think we can make a good guess as to who chose looks and who chose books in this scenario. And looks are winning.

Time to go in.

The doors are flanked either side.

Experience has told me that one of them is a ticket checker and the other a bag checker. But which is which? I cannot tell. This is like that logical deduction riddle. If one man in a suit checks only tickets, and the other only bags, what one question do you ask to gain safe entry to the theatre?

"Box office?" I try with the one on the right.

"Yup," he replies. "Just through here, but I need to check your bag first."

Well, that worked, I guess.

I open up my backpack for him and he prods around at the top layer before waving me in.

The Cambridge is very thirties. All Poirot fonts and... well, that's it really.

The box office is on the left, hidden behind a glass window, with holes at face level. Put there, presumably, so the box officers can breathe. The counter is fronted by mirrors etched with a vaguely art decoish pattern.

There are three men standing behind the glass, but a big family has just come in and they are spreading themselves out.

The box officer on the end leans out to one side and beckons me over.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say as I approach the bench.

He grabs the box of tickets.

"Maxine?" he asks, picking one out. "Here you go," he says, sliding it under the glass without waiting for an answer. I must be the only Smiles in tonight. Makes a change.

My next stop is the merch desk. Which, very pleasingly, is actually a desk. Or rather, a row of desks. The old fashioned wooden ones where the lid lifts up, and there's a small hole to fit your ink well in. The type of desk that I had at my school, despite my education happening long after the advent of biros. I think they thought it added to the aesthetic. Theyust have left them there to impress the parents. All those foreign dignitaries who wanted a classic English prep school education for their little darlings. And yes, I went to a fancy school. Keep up. It was certainly an education. The headmaster had to step down in my final year because of rumours that he was a bit too friendly with the boys, if you get my meaning.

Hmm. Probably not the best place to be remembering these things.

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I buy myself a programme. It's six pounds. Not really much more to say on the matter. There's some other merch stuff on offer, but nothing is really speaking to me. I like the look of the Trunch hoodie, because you know I'm always into the villains, but it has the Matilda title treatment on the front which kinda negates the entire point of the thing. If you're the Trunch, you're the Trunch, you don't be wanting the name of that little maggot on your chest. Honestly, who dreamt that one up?

I'm also handed a voucher for cut-price sweets, which is actually a pretty sweet (... sorry) deal and one I might steal for my work.

Anyway, enough of this. I've got a lot of stairs to climb because I'm in the grand circle tonight, which is the one right at the tippy top of the theatre here and, because this is the West End and we don't like poor people around here, there's no entrance from the foyer. I have to go back out into the sunshine, and get in via another entrance, leading to the povvo stairs.

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I'll give it to the Cambridge though, they actually thought about this. From the foyer doors, there's a roped-off corridor leading to the grand circle entrance, meaning that I don't have to be subjected to a second bag check. Well done to whoever came up with that.

Up all the stairs, passing ads for shows currently cluttering up the other LW theatres in town ("What will you see next?" they ask. All of them, Andrew. All of them.)

As I reach the summit, the posters give way to tilted frames advertising platinum blonde hair dye and national green hair day. Looks like we've gone a bit immersive up here, and I am appreciating the effort.

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A front of houser catches my eye and I show him my ticket. "Through this door, on the left and one row up," he says, pointing to the door right next to us.

I go in. Passing the little merch stand. They have programmes and CDs on display, as well as those sweets, and what looks like cups of toxic fluid. I've never seen anything so bright claiming to be edible before. Red and yellow and green. They look like they belong in the opening scene of The Secret World of Alex Mack (yes, I'm old. Leave me alone).

I'm tempted to buy one. Prove myself as the true investigative journalist that I'm definitely not. But people who remember Alex Mack are too old to drink that many e-numbers in public.

Instead, I go find my seat.

There's a break in the rows up here, forming two sections with a corridor parting the rows like the red sea down the middle.

I'm in the top half, because I'm poor. But right at the front of the top half, because I'm a master ticket buyer.

Families come in toting arm-fulls of shopping bags, which they struggle to fit under their seats. Small children perch precariously on top, like baby dragons guarding their golden hoard.

Ushers run around handing out booster seats. A must all the way up here, as even with the benefit of the corridor in front of me, and a somewhat grown-up height, the front of the stage is still hidden from view to my adult-eyes.

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But, you know, I've seen it before. So it's fine. I'm guessing you have too. As have the simply astonishing number of latecomers who don't seem even slightly bothered that they've missed the first fifteen minutes. So I'm not going to go into detail about the show, but I still think the interval is in a really weird place. Bruce Bogtrotter eating a cake is not a natural finishing point, nor is it a cliff-hanger. It has to be the most awkwardly placed interval since The Royal Ballet shoved an extra one into the already existing Alice in Wonderland when they realised that getting a ballerina to dance flat out for 90 mins was a touch mean.

Anyway, I go off to explore.

Up in the third-class tier, there are two front of house spaces to hang out in. The bar. Which is packed. And a room with nothing it it but a merch desk and a mirror. Which is also packed.

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I have to dive out the way as a mum lobs an empty Sprite bottle at me, presumably aiming for the bin a whole two feet away from my two feet.

"Sorry," she says, already walking away.

Honestly, I've long come to accept that I'm invisible. I don't draw the eye. And I'm fine with that. I walk alone. I am as one with the shadows. But I draw the line at someone seeing me after acting like I ain't there. Commit to my imperceptibility, you cowards.

I go back inside. My row has a railing in front. I prop my feet up on the bar. This is quality seating action. More rows should have footrests.

Mr Wormwood and the son, Michael come out. I mean, Rob Compton and Glen Facey, as Mr Wormwood and son Wormwood, come out. There's a bit of banter with the audience. Don't try this at home, and all that. "We don't want any kids is the audience tonight going home and trying these things out," says Compton, meaning the disgusting business of reading books. I can't agree more. I read hundreds of books as a kid. Thousands. And look where it got me. Visiting over 200 theatres in eight months and getting bottles chucked at me. I’m a tragedy of wasted potential. If things had been different, I would have made a great bottle-thrower.

"Veruccas of the mind," he goes on.

He's not wrong.

"Who here's read a book?" Hands pop up all over the place. "You should be ashamed," he sneers. "You, madam, what's your name?"

She gives it.

He jabs his finger in her direction, chanting that she's a nasty bookworm, a worm, and books are stupid.

"She won't stop reading," he says, calling down after his onslaught of insults. "But she won't put up her hand in a theatre again."

And that's something we can all be grateful for.

And then we're off again.

Swings descend from the ceiling, and I get all teary-eyed over the When I grow up song, like I always fucking do.

Francesca McKeown's Matilda fights the good fight, brings down the baddies, and gets her happy ending.

Confetti shower for the people in the stalls, and then it's time to go home.

I trudge my way back down the stairs, feeling exhausted.

Matilda always makes me feel really sad. Helpless. Defeated.

If even this bright and brave little girl needs magical powers to overcome her oppressors what hope is there for the rest of us?

That's probably not the takeaway I'm supposed to get from this show, and no doubt I'm projecting, but... man, I think we could all do with some laservision right now.

What I did on my Bank Holidays

It’s three am. My alarm has just gone.

At some point, I thought this was a good idea and I haven’t had the energy to argue with myself about it yet.

Until now.

A small voice at the back of my head tells me it’s okay. I can just roll over and go back to sleep. No one will mind. No one will even know.

Apart from @_andy_tea on that there Twitter. Because I may have told him I was doing this.

But he won’t tell. I mean, probably. I hope not. One never knows with Twitter people. They're all weirdos.

Dammit. I'm going to have to get up.

So with an internal chant of DoItForTheBlogDoItForTheBlog I get up and start on the business of pulling myself into some form of existence that is acceptable for public viewing.

I would say the theatre gods are laughing at me, but even they are not up this early.

By 4am, I’m washed, dressed, eyelinered up, the cat is fed and I am out the door, scurrying down the down to catch the night bus into Central London.

I’m yawning so much I end up flagging the wrong one by accident. Sorry Mr Driver of the 266, you’re not going my way.

A few minutes later the N11 arrives and I clamber sleepily up to the top deck. It’s surprisingly full up here, considering it’s still dark out, on an August bank holiday, but there’s a seat free right at the front, so I get to ride in style the whole way into the West End.

Out at Trafalgar Square, I scurry, still yawning, towards Charing Cross Road.

It’s quiet. The only people about are a couple of giggling girls struggling to keep upright on their stilettos.

I pass the Garrick, where there is very much not a queue for Bitter Wheat tickets.

Past the Theatres Trust, who have recently claimed there are only 263 theatres in London (hilarious!), and then, up ahead, my destination. The Wyndham’s.

I check my phone. It’s 4.45am. And there’s a queue.

One two threefour people. And someone talking to them. A homeless man. Asking for money.

“Is this the day seat queue?” I ask.

“Yup,” number three in the queue confirms. “You’re in the right place.”

“Oh, good.” I join the end of it. Number five.

Seeing that we are all distracted, the homeless man walks away.

“Thanks,” says number three. “We’re really grateful.”

It was no problem at all. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of practice of chasing people away.

We settle into silence. There’s not much going on. We stare at out phones, lighting ourselves up as beacons for anyone wandering around at this time of the morning.

“Sorry,” says a bloke coming up to me. “What’s the time?”

I tell him it’s five o’clock.

Five o’clock.

Five hours until the box office opens.

At least, I hope it’s only five hours. It could be more than that. Box offices have a habit of opening late on bank holidays.

Andy T (of Twitter) popped in to ask yesterday for me (I mean, he might have had other reasons for asking, but I'm choosing to believe it was for me), and they said it was a standard 10am start. But you can never trust the word of a box officer who’s not working that shift.

I shrug off my jacket, place it carefully on the ground, and sit down on top of it.

My vintage 49er doesn’t do much in the way of padding, but at least it's some sort of layer between me and the tarmac.

At seven minutes past, three more people arrive. “Are you trying to get tickets for Fleabag?” asks the girl, who is clearly in charge of this outing. “Is this where the queue ends?”

Only one of them is wearing a jacket, and the three of them try to squeeze themselves onto it.

I brought a book, but it’s too dark to read. So instead I get out my notebook and start writing up last night’s theatre trip. My handwriting is illegible at the best of times, so the darkness isn’t going to make much of a difference now.

At 5.21am two more people arrive.

“I’m just trying to work out which end is which,” says a young woman, standing back from the line to take us all in.

We point her in the right direction. “It’s this end,” someone tells her.

“Yeah,” says her friend. “You can’t just join the front of the queue again.”

The “again” is very pointed. They must do this a lot. Except, usually experienced day seaters know which end of the queue to join.

I think they might be a little drunk.

They too settle down.

That’s ten of us now.

The street-sweepers have started their rounds.

Across the way, a few tourists emerge from the Hippodrome Casino. The security guard on the door crosses his arms and watches them until they are safety deposited into their Uber.

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People pause as they walk past to look at us with interest.

“What are you guys all waiting for?” asks a man riding by on a bike.

“Tickets for a play,” explains one of the drunk girls.

“Aladdin?”

She laughs. “No! Fleabag!”

He loops round, doubling back on himself to approach the front of the queue. “Can you help a homeless guy out?”

We all shake our heads.

He rides off, with a shout of “are you all on ecstasy?!” over his shoulder.

Then nothing.

The sun begins to rise.

I have about 700 words down in my notebook. I can’t write anymore. I turn to reading. The Long Earth. I’ve been trying to avoid this one, knowing the number of Terry Pratchett books in the world that I haven’t read yet are dwindling rapidly. But day seating seems to be as good a time as any to crack this one open. After a 3am start, I deserve it.

Just before seven, a couple arrive together on bikes. The woman points at us each in turn, counting us up before air-punching. They got here in time.

The street sweeper has made it to our side of the row. I tuck in my feet so he can get at those tricksy cigarette butts.

The man on his bike is back. “The show is cancelled everyone!” he calls as he rides past. Something tells me he’s a bit of a jokester.

The street sweepers and partygoers are all gone now. The roads have been taken over by delivery vans. People in the queue take it in turns to go to Pret, sharing intelligence about whether their porridge pots are out yet, and codes to the loo for those who just need a pee.

I put my book down. I can’t read anymore.

My legs are aching. I stretch them out in front of me and blankly watch this little corner of the world wake up.

A group of giggling young woman approach us, asking the number one queued what time she got there.

“Four,” she says.

“Four?!”

The supreme ruler of the queue nods and confirms it. “Yes, four.”

“Okay then…” they walk away whispering and giggling.

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At ten to ten, I stand up. I can’t sit on that pavement anymore. Everything hurts. My back. My legs. But most of all, my bottom.

The doors open.

A woman dressed all in black comes out.

I like her immediately.

“I have 33 standings!” she shouts so that we can all hear.

Everyone turns round to look at the queue. It’s grown, running all the way down the side of the Wyndham’s and beyond. Is that less or more than 33? I can’t tell. I try to count, but loose my place after twenty or so.

“We do have two single seats,” says the woman in black. “But they are very high in price.”

Number three in the queue asks how much they are.

“One is 125, and one is 150. I think. Don’t quote me on that,” she says as I attempt to quote her on that. “Let me colleague know if you want one.”

We all shuffle our feet. No one queues for five hours to buy a 150 quid ticket when there is a ten pound one on offer.

“I’ll be counting down the row,” she goes on. “So we all know where we are. If you’re standing, it has to be you attending. You’ll be asked for ID and the card you paid with when you pick up your tickets this evening.”

A little part of my brain wants to ask why we can’t get our tickets right away, but it is quickly hushed by the surrounding neurons. It’s still far too early for questions.

As a couple of front of housers work on getting the doors open, the woman in black chats to queuers one and two. “What time were you here?” she asks. “Very good!”

And we are let in. Two at a time. Like the ark.

“I can’t wait to go home and sleep,” I tell the woman in black as queuers three and four go inside.

She laughs. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that. That they’re going straight back to bed.”

I remember her question to the first people in the queue. “What’s the earliest you’ve had someone arrive.”

“We had a couple fly over from Spain. They came at midnight. With a tent.” She looks over as number three in the queue comes back out. “You can go in now.”

Into the foyer, and over to the box office, set into the wall on the right.

Two people are on duty.

Queue member number four is getting her details into the system.

I go to the other box officer.

“Morning!” I say, as cheerily as I can manage.

My box officer starts tapping away on his computer, giving me the spiel as he works. Tickets are non-transferrable. You’ll need to bring ID.

I nod along.

“Can I have your postcode?”

I give it.

“What’s your surname?”

I give that too.

“I think I have an account,” I say, knowing full well that I do. This ain’t my first trip to a Delfont Mackintosh theatre.

“It looks like you might,” he says. “What’s your first name.”

“Maxine?”

“Yup,” he says, agreeing that I am indeed the Smiles he has on the system. “There you go. Now, is that cash or card.”

It’s card.

Now ten pounds further into my overdraft, he hands me a ticket. Or rather, the voucher.

“Sign this please,” he says, sliding over a pen.

And with a flourish of my name, I’m off. Back outside in the sunshine, and utterly unsure of what to do next. I’m exhausted and yet the day as only just begun.

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Nine hours later, I’m back.

The Wyndham's has shed its sleepy exterior and it’s now buzzing with excitement.

“This door if you have your ticket, or this one if you’re picking up,” says the man on the door.

I’m picking up, so I go through the second door.

A bag checker is waiting inside. He peers inside my rucksack, feels the bottom, and then pauses, staring at my chest.

“Is that… Hanson?” he says, stepping back in horror from the sight of my t-shirt.

“Yeah…” I say, pulling it out for him to get a proper look at the family portrait of the Hanson brothers, with NIRVANA emblazoned beneath them. “It’s a joke t-shirt,” I explain.

“Oh… good. I was going to say…”

I smile. I fucking love this t-shirt.

Bag checker thoroughly confused, it’s time for me to go to the box office.

“Can I see your ID please?” asks the box officer after I had over my signed voucher.

I give him my driving license. Provisional because of course I never learnt how to drive.

He looks from one to the other, checking, and then with a smile hands over my ticket. “Just to remind you, if you leave before the end of the performance, you can’t go back in. Enjoy!”

The foyer of the Wyndham’s is very comfortable looking. In a side-room-in-an-art-gallery kind of way. There are sofas around the walls and large paintings that seem to belong outside of any recognisable artistic movement. There are pillars and stiped wallpapers. The ceiling is covered with cherubs.

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Where next? The merch desk of course. I’m getting me a programme.

No queue, four pounds fifty, and I can pay by card. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Right. Downstairs. Benefit of being early in the queue. I get to stand in the stalls instead of the back of the balcony.

There’s a ticket checker down here. He tears off the stub while he reminds me that there’s no readmissions. As if I could forget.

Round the corner and down a bit more. I pause to admire the carpet. All fancy florals and woven Ws. Nice.

Inside it’s your classic West End auditorium. Cream-coloured walls and curved boxes, with gold twiddly bits iced on top.

I head to the back. Standers are cramped against the back wall. So many that they some of them are spilling down the side.

“Are standers allowed over on the other side?” I ask one of them, pointing to the completely empty wall on the other there.

She shrugs and says they were directed to stand on this side.

I decide to risk it and slip through the rows, pacing up and down this section of wall to find the best spot.

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A few minutes later, number three from the queue turns up.

“Is that… who are they…?” he says, looking at my t-shirt.

I explain the whole Hanson/Nirvana joke thing. He doesn’t look convinced.

Clearly my t-shirt doesn’t play well to the Fleabag crowd.

An usher comes over. “Hello. You’re all standing,” she says. We nod. We are indeed all standing. “Just to let you know, you can’t take any empty seats. And you can’t sit down on the floor.” Right. No sitting for us. At the Wyndham’s you pay ten quid to see the show, and the other hundred to sit down. “It’s a health and safety issue,” she explains. Ah. “In case there’s a fire we need to ensure a free exit.” Okay. Fine. That makes sense. “If you leave, there’s no readmittance. You’ll be taken to the Stalls bar and you’ll have to watch the rest of the show on the screen.”

“Don’t worry, we’re not leaving!” says queued number nine.

I have a quick flick through of the programme. It’s a standard Delfont Mackintosh jobby. Lots of recycled articles that you’ll see again and again for all their shows. But there’s a nice little piece about how Fleabag came about, and the new writing programmes that helped it happen. Great intel for anyone who wants to be the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

I try to get comfortable. There’s a recess in the wall behind me which is making it tricky. But at least there's carpet under my feet. And it's probably for the best I'm not sitting down. Five hours sitting on cold tarmac have made themselves known in the bum region.

The lights go down and… nothing. I expected a gasp or a whoop or something. You get gasps and whoops when the lights go down at big shows. Can you imagine the lights going down at, I don’t know, Hamilton, or Cursed Child, and there not being a gasp or a whoop?

As Waller-Bridge rushes out from the wings, a stander near me raises her hands to clap, but quickly lowers them when she realises no one else is in a clapping mood.

I sink against the wall, feeling a little let down. The last thing I wanted was to be in a silent audience. I’d just have stayed at home and watched series one on the iPlayer.

But it doesn't take long to get us going. Snort laughs and tentative giggles turn into fully-grown guffaws and by the end we're wincing and howling at the fate of poor Hillary.

As Waller-Bridge takes her bows, the stalls stand to ovate, starting at the front row and working back, like a tidal wave of applause crashing into the back wall.

I'm almost thrown back by the force of it.

"Well, that was worth it," says queuer number three as the house lights go up.

"Yup," I agree. "Now it's worth it."

Chateauneuf du Programme

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.

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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.

Fuck's sake.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Unfortunately.

I live here on the corner, I am sucking in the fumes

It’s the start of Camden Fringe today! To celebrate, I’m watching a show that is not in Camden. And not the one I’d actually booked to see.

I was supposed to be at 365 tonight, a play I know nothing about other than it was going to be performed in the Phoenix Arts Club, which, let me tell you, is a tricky venue to pin down. But the show was cancelled. Giving me a Monday off. Now I can’t be wasting a Monday night on Netflix, not when I still have over a hundred more theatres to get to, so I checked back in on the fringe, and found Class, a verbatim play, opening at the Tristan Bates. A West End theatre, as I’m sure you know. But only by way of its location. I would class it as a fringe venue really. Not that I’ve ever been.

The Tristan Bates has always confused me. Mostly because, even though I know where it is, right on the corner of Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I’ve never worked out how to get in. There’s the big square sign right there. But with a cafe on one side, and what looks like the entrance to the flats above on the other, I’ve been left with the impression that it must be some Platform 9 3/4 situation.

Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to work it out.

As I stand there, on that corner between Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I take my photos of the building, and realise maybe, that big yellow neon sign saying the actors centre, was where I was meant to be.

I have no idea what the actors centre is (lower case-ness and lack of apostrophe is all on them), but I have some vague recollection of seeing the logo on the Tristan Bates website while booking my ticket. So, that’s probably an indication that I should follow the yellow neon sign.

Inside, there’s a desk. It could be a box office. Hard to tell.

“I’m here to pick up a ticket…?” I say, letting the question mark drop into place at the end of my very hesitant sentence.

“Yes?”

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering how long we can keep this question-rally going before one of us hits a full stop right into the net.

The woman behind the counter looks something up on her computer before reaching into a small box. Admission tokens! Oh good. I made it.

I’m feeling rather over-confident now that I know I’m in the right place, so I attempt to lob over a difficult one.

“Is there a freesheet?” I ask.

The box officer gives me the kind of look that makes me think I just accidentally asked for an autographed photo of Trump, in the act of Tweeting on his golden throne.

I press on. “Like, a cast sheet?” The look of confused horror doesn’t clear. “It doesn’t matter if there isn’t,” I add hurriedly. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“No,” says the other lady behind the counter, hurredly getting up and coming out from behind the desk. “But we do have this.” She grabs one of the flyers from the rack and hands it to me. “It’s just a flyer,” she explains.

“That’s perfect, thank you!” I tell her. And it is perfect. There’s a cast list on the back. And a run down of the creatives. It’s everything I need on one smart piece of card.

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Now that’s sorted, I’m directed over to the bar. Down a small ramp, and around the corner.

It’s a bit nice in here. Cocktails are advertised as £5.50. There’s a box full of KitKats and Bounty Bars on display. And over on the other side, sofas are lined with a yellow brick wall and rows and rows of books.

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The sofas are taken, so I set up shop at the counter overlooking them. Thankfully, there’s a step underneath to help my launch myself up onto the bar stool – always a challenge for me, being on the smaller side and rather inept when it comes to balance.

Through the glass doors on the far wall, people come in and out, greeting those waiting on the sofas with hugs and kisses, and my heart begins to sink. It’s going to be one of those audiences, isn’t it? Where everyone knows everyone, and they are all connected to someone involved in the production. Great fun to be in those ranks. Really unpleasant when you’re the outsider.

An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen the doors are now open to...” I can't make out the rest. If they include instructions as to the location of the theatre, I can’t hear them.

I glance around, but no one else is moving. My neighbours on the counter haven’t even looked up.

Am I meant to go through the glass doors? They don’t look very likely. But then nothing about this place has looked very likely.

The box officer appears. “Are you here for the show?” she asks the group on the sofa. “The doors are now open.” They muddle to their feet, and then the box officer comes over to the counter. “Hello ladies! Did you hear the announcement? The doors are now open.”

Turns out the doors are back the way we came. Round the corner, up the ramp, past the box office and round. There’s a door lurking down here, with a chalkboard giving the show times. 7.45 - Class. The other time slots are all empty.

Through the door, and we’re in.

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It’s a neat little theatre. Brick walls painted black. A floor level stage. Loose chairs, but set on a raked platform.

I decide it’s time to return to my traditional seating choice: the end of the third row.

Bit of squidging past the person already in, but the seats are alright once you’re sat down. Leg room isn’t great, but hey, it’s the fringe! Shows are short, and being ever so slightly uncomfortable is part of the experience.

Lights dim, and the cast come on. Alyce Louise-Potter and Kelsey Short. All dungerees and earnest smiles.

They have earphones in. I can see the white wires dangling. No airpod nonsense here. They begin speaking, echoing the voices playing in their ears. They’re being interviewed. On the subject of class. What it is. What they define themselves as. Working class, it seems. That’s how this pair consider themselves.

With a switch from flat caps to retro fast food paper hats, they become a new pair. These ones aren’t so sure about their class. Working or middle? Hard to tell. One owns her own house, she says proudly. With five bedrooms. You can’t do that if you’re working class.

She’s not wrong.

Perhaps there are only two classes nowdays. The home owners and the home loanees. Everything else is pedantry. Accent. Education. How you hold your knife. All irrelevant in the face of an ability to acquire a mortgage.

On they go, switching it up, becoming different people as they wade through this quagmire of the class system, covering accents and jobs and stereotypes and pride.

It’s so refreshing to hear class being talked about with such openness and honestly, in the words of real people and not playwrights. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of verbatim theatre. Most people are quite dull without the and of a good editor. I mean, they’re probably not. I’m just a useless conversationalist and never know the right questions to ask. So like, I totally admit me finding people boring is entirely my own fault. That doesn’t stop me from having trouble listening to the chatter if strangers though.

But here the interactions are so fast, the bonds between the pairs so palpable, and the actors, so charming, I can’t help but smile as they wade into the family history of unnamed strangers.

Plus, it’s a fringe show. So it’s only a hour. Which is a mega bonus and aligns well with my in-bed-by-ten philosophy.

As we head out, everyone turns left, making their way back to the bar. They’re going to be making a night of it. No doubt they’ll joined by members of the production soon enough.

As for me, all on my lonesome and not friends with anyone in the cast, I go straight forward, pushing the door open and stepping back onto the corner between Earlham Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.

If I race for the tube, I might just make it back to Hammersmith before the clock strikes 9.30.

 

A bottle full of glitter

Back before I started this marathon, I really liked the Soho Theatre. Well, I had positive feelings towards it anyway. What with its neon lights in the bar, and the bright pink logo. It’s cool. It made me feel cool just being there. Not that I went all that often. But every now and then there’d be a show, say… a new Philip Ridley, or a Jack Thorne, that would draw me in. The tickets are cheap, so there was nothing to stop me going. So i’d buy one, trot off to Dean Street, watch the show, enjoy it, and then leave happy enough. And I’d soon return to my default state of never really thinking about the Soho except when they have an interesting show on.

But this marathon has changed the way I look at things. With my focus now away from the work, I see theatres differently. And I have to be honest, I don’t think I actually like the Soho all that much anymore.

I’d go so far as to say I actively dislike the Soho.

Enough that I don’t really want to go in.

Here I am, standing on the pavement of Dean Street, watching a film crew chivvy people off of the road and away from thick ropes of electrical cables, and I really don’t want to go in.

I message Helen. “I’m here but gonna go for a little walk,” I say, turning around and slipping into a side street.

A few minutes later, a message pops up on my phone. “Ok. Do you want a bubble tea?”

Well, obviously I do.

I lean against a lamppost to message her back in the affirmative. And then wait. Two minutes. Three minutes. How long does it take to order a bubble tea?

After five minutes I figure it’s time to head back.

The film crew are still standing in the middle of the road with their broad shoulders and hi-vis jackets, eyeing up anyone who dares step over their cables.

I hop over them, and make my way into the entrance.

I can barely get through the door. The queue at the box office is so long its mingling with the mass of people trying to press themselves into the bar. I hang back, waiting for it to clear.

“Next?” calls one of the ladies behind the box office.

I look to someone standing nearby. I make a “are you waiting?” style gesture to her. She doesn’t look up.

“Yes? Next!” shouts the box officer, sounding more than a little pissed off.

And so it begins.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say, going up to the counter.

“Show?” she snaps.

“Cocoon,” I say, reflecting her rapped-out style. The show is called Cocoon Central Dance Team: The Garden Party, but there’s no time for multi-syllable phrases at the Soho.

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She pulls a ream of tickets free from the Cocoon box.

“And the postcode?”

I give it, and she rips away the receipt and all the additional ticket elements the printers churn out, before handing me the twin pink slips.

I turn around and almost walk into someone.

It’s Helen.

“Do you like watermelon,” she says, holding out a pink cup so bright it’s almost Soho Theatre branded.

I cringe. “I hate watermelon,” I admit.

With a nod, she swaps the cup on offer. This one is brown.

I fumble around with my phone and tickets.

Helen watches me for a second. “Hang on,” she says. “Let me put the straw in for you.”

Bless Helen. She knows I can’t handle things as complicated as sticking a straw through a foil top.

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“Shall we go outside?” I ask, with my newly-strawed cup in hand. “Oh my god, this is really good.”

It is really good. The boba are super chewy and the brown liquid smooth and sweet. Just want I needed after a hard day working down the print-mines.

“It’s black sugar,” explains Helen as we step onto the pavement.

“Like burnt sugar?”

Helen gives me a look. It’s a very serious look. “No,” she says. “Black sugar is all the rage in Asia. Everything is black sugar flavour. It’s not burnt sugar. It’s black sugar…. White people are so ignorant.”

I mean, I can’t fault her there.

Black or burnt, I suck it down greedily. It really is good.

I leave it to the last possible moment, but at 7.27pm I have to admit it’s time to go back inside.

We’re in the Downstairs theatre tonight. The Soho Theatre’s cabaret space. I even booked us spots at one of the cabaret table, which are a whole two pounds more expensive than the seats at the back.

“Can you finish your drinks please?” says the front of houser guarding the stairs down to the basement.

“Is there a bin anywhere?” asks Helen.

“Round the corner,” says the front of houser pointing back towards the box office.

Helen goes round the corner, finding the bin tucked up under the counter. I follow behind, getting a mouthful of boba in my efforts to finish my drink before chucking it. I bend down and push the cup into the very inconveniently located bin. It’s already full to the brim. I don’t envy the person who has to empty that.

Back to the stairwell, and I show the front of houser our tickets. She waves us downstairs.

A neon sign greets us: Soho Theatre Downstairs it screams in blazing blue, stark against the dark walls.

No white paint and pink accents down here. It all red and black and slightly seedy. Photos of past performers on stage line the way down. I spot Tim Minchin amongst the faces as we race downstairs.

There’s another ticket checker down here.

“Fourth row back, two tables in,” she says, glancing at the tickets.

I look at the space.

Fourth row back, two tables in.

All I see is a clutter of tables and chairs.

I try and count them.

One. Two Three. Four.

And second table in.

There are two seats free here. This must be it.

I squeeze through, dumping my bag on the chair and wriggling myself between the tiny gap beside our table.

It’s very cramped in here. The back of my chair is knocking against the back of a chair belonging to the table next to me.

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The row is indicated via a small sign propped up on the table top. The seat numbers scrawled onto the table’s surface. “5, 6, 7, 8,” out table calls out, clearly getting ready to audition for the next A Chorus Line revival.

I look around. I’ve lost Helen. She’s disappeared.

Oh well. I’m sure she’ll be fine. She knows how to stick a straw into bubble tea. That’s the mark of a grown up if ever there was one.

“I couldn’t find you!” says Helen, plonking herself down in the seat next to me. She gets out her fan and flicks it open. If you’ve ever wondered where I learnt my fan-flicking skills, the answer is that it’s from Helen. She’s not just a master straw-pusher, you know.

“Do you want a drink?” she asks.

I want to tell her not to be silly, that she just bought me boba tea, but I don’t think I’m ever getting out of this seat, and, well… I kinda want a G&T.

“It’s up to you,” she says. “I’m not fussed either way.”

Well, in that case… “I wouldn’t say no to a gin and tonic,” I tell her.

With a snap of her fan, she gets up and goes to the bar.

I look around.

Ahead of us is the stage. Raised.

Behind are the cheap seats. Although they look quite nice. Velvet benches. With slim tables fixed in front of them. They look a good deal more comfortable than the cabaret set-up out front.

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A second later, Helen’s back.

“That was weird,” she says, sitting back down. “When I went up, the woman there,” she says, inclining her head in the direction of the bar, “she kind of blocked my way. I when I asked if I could get a drink, she said the bar is closing…”

“Closing?” I say, picking up on the word. “So… not closed?”

“Well exactly!” says Helen. “That’s what I said. ‘Closing, or closed?’ And then she says ‘closed’ and then turns her back on me.”

“Fucking rude.”

“It was quite.”

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“But also like… notice how the show still hasn’t started yet,” I say, with a wave of my hand to indicate the absence of anyone on stage. “They could have totally made you a drink by now.”

“Exactly!”

“And like… these are cabaret tables…. So, like… shouldn’t there be table service?”

“Yes!”

“Otherwise, what the hell is the point?” I say, getting rather worked up now. “They might as well just have normal seating down here.”

Helen laughs. “You sound like such a little reviewer now.”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of theatres doing stuff well. It really fucking irritates me when they don’t.” I lean back in my chair. “And here they just treat you like livestock, moving the moving crowds from bar to seat, prodding anyone who gets out of line… You wouldn’t get that shitty attitude at Magic Mike.”

That’s sure enough. Say what you want about Magic Mike (and believe me, I’ve said a lot) you wouldn’t get staff like this at the Hippodrome. Not that I’m blaming the staff. It’s the management. But that doesn’t stop them from being rude.

And it’s not like it’s even Soho-cool rudeness, if such a thing even exists anymore.

This is not clever rudeness. Or snarky rudeness. Or amusing rudeness.

This is the rudeness of people who don’t care about the experience they are providing. The rudeness of people who think your ticket only buys you access to a show and nothing more. The rudeness of the overworked. The rudeness of the underpaid.

The rudeness of bad management.

“She could definitely have worded it better,” agrees Helen.

The house lights dim.

We’re beginning.

The cast come out. They’re wearing blue bodystockings. And they’re dancing.

And it’s hilarious.

I look over at Helen.

Earlier today I’d told her they’d referenced Twyla Tharp in their marketing copy. I don’t know what this is, but it is not Twyla Tharp.

But she’s smiling. She’s loving it too.

Thank gawd.

As the first number finishes and we are taken backstage into the dressing room where they begin preparations for the next act, I forget all about the dismal Soho staff and find myself lost in a world of sequins and female friendship. The type of friendship where every self-criticism is met by a chorus of personally offended “Nooooos.” Where compliments are used as punctuation. And grand proclamations of undying affection are given as standard.

It’s hard not to grin while watching these three.

They are clearly having so much fun, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been invited along for the ride.

With champagne flutes at the ready, they pour themselves glasses of glitter from wine glasses filled with the sparkly stuff. And I can’t think of a better metaphor for the Soho.

A dull, heavy, container, only rendered special by the dazzle and spark that lives inside. And without that? Well, it’s fit for nothing by bludgeoning someone over the head with.

“I am so happy right now,” I say to Helen as the house lights go up, following what must have been at least five fake-out curtain calls.

“I didn’t see any Twyla Tharp…” she says, but she’s smiling.

“I think they just picked a contemporary choreographer at random.”

“I think they must have.”

“But it was so joyful!”

“It was very joyful. But also real. I recognised everything that happened on stage.”

I nod in agreement. It did all feel very real. We’ve all had those friendships. Those conversations. Even if we weren’t in an award-winning comedy dance troupe. “The little one was totally Ellen,” I say, referring to our mutual friend.

“She was totally Ellen! Small. Brunette. Cute. And…”

“Pissy,” we both say at the same time.

“I think I’m the tall one,” says Helen. “I’m just vulnerable, you know?”

I look at her seriously. “You are loved and deserve validation,” I tell her. I pause. Something occurs to me. “Does that mean I’m Sunita?”

I don’t think I’m a Sunita. But I’m also not mad about being a Sunita.

“I loved Sunita,” says Helen.

I loved Sunita too. She was fabulous. Always with a make up brush in hand, stroking her cheeks… yeah, I’m a Sunita.

There’s a crash. The stage is already filled by people bringing down the set.

“They could have at least waited for us to leave,” says Helen as we get out from our table. But there’s no stopping them. They’re already pulling down the projection screen, lifting it down from the stage.

“We should go…” I say. And we traipse back up the stairs into the pink-filled foyer.

It’s going to be a long time before I’m back here.

Can’t say that I'm all that upset by that.

Well, not until they programme the next Philip Ridley.

Sweat-proof and transfer-resistant

More bag checks. It’s weird to think there was a time when this didn’t feel normal. That you could walk into a West End theatre without revealing on the embarrassing items that you tote around with you.

The bag checker on duty at the Gielgud clicks her little torch and peers inside the black depths of my rucksack. All good. The torch clicks off. “Mind the step and ticket collection is on the left,” she says all in one breath.

Right then. Better go left.

There’s a neat desk set into the wall over here. Which would seem like the perfect location for a box office. But the people at Gielgud Towers (or should I say Mackintosh House, home to Delfont Mackintosh, which is right next door) wouldn’t agree. Oh no. They have their ticket collection point on a small concession desk. The type where you’d expect to buy a programme, and maybe a bag of Minstrels.

But there's no bag of Minstrels here. Just tickets.

I join the queue and look around.

The Gielgud is a bit fancy, isn’t it? I mean, you kinda expect that from a theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, but this one really is glowing.

There’s an oval-shaped mezzanine above the foyer, and people are up there, leaning on the balustrade to gaze down on all the newcomers, like sneaky angels perching on the edge of an oculus.

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Small spotlights are placed strategically to make the gilded walls glow and shimmer. It’s all rather spectacular.

It is entirely the wrong place to watch SWEAT.

This tale of the American factory workers is much better suited to its original home at the Donmar Warehouse. I saw it there last year. One of the last productions I went to before going into marathon-mode. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Perhaps it was just suffering from being overhyped, but I thought it was just a whole pile of words, and I wasn’t that into it. I mean, it was fine. It’s not like I thought it was bad. Watchable, you know? But the Pulitzer prize win baffled me.

So, yeah. When the West End transfer was announced, I wasn’t all that enthused about going again. But I couldn’t get my act together early enough to book into Company, and I really didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of the Les Mis holding cell. So here we are. At SWEAT.

But I’m not mad at it. The theatre is nice. The seats are comfy. I can just lean back and maybe have a little nap.

I reach the front of the queue, give my name, and get my ticket. No fuss.

Right, where am I sitting?

Row A. Stalls.

Okay then. No napping for me. Martha Plimpton might notice. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s offend Martha Plimpton. She scares me.

When Martha Plimpton asked me to get out of the way at Shakespeare in the Abbey, I got the fuck out of the way.

I better go in before she tells the ushers to keep an eye on me.

Hmm. Not sure where I’m going.

There’s a door to the stalls over here, just up these steps. But then there’s another one across the other way. Neither of them have numbers on them, and my ticket doesn’t have a left or a right on it.

I pick a door at random. Which basically means I select the one closest to me.

The ticket checker leans around his doorway and hands a single ticket stub to the front of houser standing guard at the staircase leading up to the circle.

“Here you go,” he says with a big grin.

That’s… odd. But perhaps she collects ticket stubs. If so, she’s sure in the right job.

He glances at my ticket and let’s me through. So, I guess my guess was guessed right.

Down some stairs with some frankly exhaustingly patterned carpet, and an equally enthused wallpaper. I slow down so that I can admire the posters. They’re properly old ones. From back when a typesetter was king. All text. No images.

Probably for the best, given that wallpaper.

Lots of John Gielgud shows, which I suppose makes sense.

There’s only so much lingering in stairwells you can do with only text-based posters to look at, and I make my way to the bottom and into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. Which reminds me. I have the programme from the Donmar run, because of course I do. I wonder what they’ve done differently.

I buy one. It’s £4. Which is an alright price. Almost a bargain.

Let’s see what’s in it.

I find my seat, in the front row, stuff my bag and jacket under the seat and settle in for a good peruse of the programme. There’s an article by Stephen Bush. That was in the Donmar programme. “Class hatred is Britain’s original sin.” Nice. What else? Another article! That’s what. It’s not often you get double articleage in the West End, I can tell you that for sure. This one’s by Jocelyn L. Buckner. “Blood, sweat and tears.” About how Lynn Nottage empowered the residents of Reading with their own story. That… that sounds familiar. I check the photo I snapped this morning. “Labor Negotiations: The Power of Community Forged Through Sweat.” By Jocelyn L. Buckner. Same article. But with a souped up West End title.

There's also a short piece about Les Mis, which we definitely didn't get at the Donmar. But it's all facts and figures and numbers and dates, and my god it's boring. I mean, come on, this is just glorified marketing copy. No one wants to read that. And I say that as someone who writes marketing copy for a living.

There seems to be rather a lot of that here. Marketing under the guise of editorial. There's a whole thing about Mary Poppins just a few pages further in. This is the kind of stuff I put in brochures. Not programmes. Oh well, I suppose we can just chalk 'em up as ads and move on.

“I haven’t got a programme,” says my neighbour. “Will you be offended if I don’t spend money on a programme?”

Well, actually I would rather… Oh, he isn’t talking to me.

Ah.

I mean, perhaps he got himself one during the Donmar run. That might explain it. You’d have to be pretty darn obsessed with programmes to buy the exact same content, just in a different format, with added advertising...

“It’s stunning!” says his companion.

I look critically at the programme. It’s alright, I guess. Not quite the slick sophistication of the white and red Donmar programmes, but it’s got a nice image on the front.

She stands up to look around the auditorium.

My neighbour twists around in his seat. “Yes,” he agrees. “A real Edwardian gem.”

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Honestly, it’s like these people aren’t even interested in programmes.

“The set is very evocative and very realistic. I don't think it's for doing things with, a la our national theatre,” continues my neighbour. “I suppose the men from the factory could come down from the pulleys but I don't think it’s the kind of play.”

He’s right. It’s not that kind of play. No swinging from the chandelier here. Although I’d have a great view of it if any of the cast fancy getting a bit acrobatic.

Someone in theatre blacks comes along to adjust all the small microphones set on the front of the stage. We all shuffle out knees around so that he can get through, but really, there’s plenty of room. I can stretch my legs right out and my toes don’t even touch the stage. Benefits of front rowing, I suppose. I should really do this more often.

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The house lights dim and Martha Plimpton’s lovely voice comes over the sound system, telling us to switch off our phones. I’ve already put my phone away, but I get it out to double check that, yes, my phone is on airplane mode, and yes, it’s on silent too. Ain’t no buzzing going to interrupt Martha Plimpton’s flow. Not today.

Except, it’s not Martha Plimpton who comes out on stage.

It’s a man with tattoos. On his face. Nazi tattoos. On his face.

A man sitting really fucking close to me. With Nazi tattoos. On his face.

Shit. I’d forgotten about this.

I’m surprised about how uncomfortable it is. To be sitting so close to a man with Nazi tattoos. On his face. I know it’s not real. I know it’s just makeup. But I can’t help but think about the poor actor having to apply all that every day. And the momentary panic he must have every time they don’t wash off quite as quickly as they should.

But it’s only a framing device.

Soon enough, dust sheets are being pulled away, bits of set lowered from the rafters, and we're in a bar, and there's Martha Plimpton, dancing away. I think she might be a bit drunk.

At the Donmar, I was stuck right at the back of the circle. Watching the play from above. Here, well, I have quite the opposite angle. I can see right under the tables. I can even count all the bits of chewing gum stuck underneath.

And oh my lord, what a difference sitting close makes. I'm not going to start claiming that I believe in the second coming of SWEAT. But you know, it's good. I'm enjoying it.

And when Sebastián Capitán Viveros's Oscar flips over each of the tables in turn, and chisels off the chewing gum, I get a certain satisfaction seeing them turned back again, all clean and gum-free. Almost as if I'd hacked away at the white globs myself.

And when the fight scene comes, well, I find myself leaning as far back as I can, convinced that someone's going to come flying off the stage, legs and arms flailing, and quite possibly knock my nose off on their way down.

It doesn't help that it's a pretty fucking intense fight scene.

The audience audibly winces as Oscar takes a wallop to the stomach. A soft hiss of air escaping from between the audience members' teeth as he goes down.

Oof. That reqlly doesn't look good, mate.

Play over, I feel like I've been released. And not just because it was over two and a half hours.

I was pinned down for far too long. Pushed back into my chair with that heady stream of words.

I can see why people like sitting in the front row. But it's a bit too much for me. Too real. Too present. Too vulnerable-making.

And, let's be real. If a play is so intimate that it requires sitting in the front row in order to really feel it? Eh... I mean, perhaps a traditional theatre isn't the right place for it.

Anyway, another theatre checked off the list. Gielgud is done. And at least I don't have to debate with myself whether the staged theatrical concert version of Les Mis that's coming in next counts as theatre or not.

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But you always knew that you'd be the one that work while they all play

"Can I check your bag?" asks the bag checker.

You sure can, my good man.

I open the zip to expose my fresh haul of cough sweets and hayfever tablets. Let me tell you, I am having a swell time this summer. With the itchy eyes and runny nose to add to that neverending cough of mine, I sure am the ideal theatre-goer at the moment. And I'm carrying it off so well. Really, I've never looked better. I've always though watery eyes were a hard look to pull off but I think I'm making it work.

He doesn't flinch.

Perhaps three bags of bright yellow cough sweets aren't the weirdest thing he's come across lately.

Search complete, he steps back and lets me through.

The foyer in the Leicester Square Theatre is tiny. A metre square, if that. With a proper hole-in-the-wall box office. My favourite kind.

There are already two people ahead of me in the queue. So I hang back, lest we end up getting a touch too cosy for so early in the evening.

"What's the name?" the lady behind the window asks.

"Err," he says, with a pause that goes on way too long for that kind of question. "The initials are KJ? I don't really want to say."

Blimey. Either he has a really dodgy name, or there's a new papering club that I haven't heard of.

Oh, yeah. I should probably say. I don't use any of those theatre ticket clubs for my marathon. Not because I don't want to, you understand. But because I'm not allowed to. Nothing to do with the blog. It's my job, you see. Can't become a member if you work in the industry. I mean, I suppose I could lie. But I'm kinda on record of working for a venue, so, yeah, that's out.

Anyway, good luck to this man and his ticket acquisition skills. And no shade meant to any venue or show that needs to fill a few seats. We've all done it. Trust me.

Mr KJ gets his tickets and moves on. My turn.

Now, I have a perfectly normal surname, so I just give that, and after confirming my first name, get my ticket.

After that, I go down the stairs. The walls are a deep, dark red. Which seems to me to be entirely the wrong colour to paint the walls of a stairwell that takes you down into a basement. But perhaps that's just because I'm watching Stranger Things at the moment. I’m primed to see monsters lurking behind every corner.

And it's not that scary down here. Yes, the walls are still red. But there's a massive concession counter taking up one wall. And things can't be scary when there are sweets on sale. I mean yes, Hansel and Gretel. But that witch wasn't selling and those kids were just little arseholes.

Anyway, there's a ticket checker on the door here.

"You're through this door," he says, pointing at the one just next to us. "There are bars inside."

"Thanks!"

"You're welcome," he says, handing my ticket back.

Aww. So polite. Bet he never stole gingerbread from an old lady.

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Down a few more steps and I'm in the theatre. It's larger than I expected. All on one level. With a high stage. Which is a good thing, as when I sit down I discover that the rake is really terrible.

Without the benefit of anything happening on stage, all I have is a bloody good view of the backs of all the heads of the people sitting in front of me. Bent down as they read their programmes.

Hang on. Why don't I have a programme?

I look around. There aren't any programme sellers anywhere.

Perhaps I missed them at the concessions desk.

There are bars though. Two of them. One either side of the auditorium.

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And both of them are branded up. With the name of the show emblazoned on the wall, and the merch covering every surface.

Right then.

"Hi, is there a programme?" I ask the bloke behind the bar.

He looks at me with confusion. Behind his head, draped across the back shelves are Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare t-shirts. Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare tote bags. And Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare hoodies. Surely it isn't too much to ask for a Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare programme?

"Err," he says. "They should be on the seats?"

"Umm?"

"Are they not?"

I turned around to look back at my row. If there are programmes, they must be Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare invisible. "No?"

He reaches under the bar and pulls one out.

Honestly. Good thing I asked.

As I return to my seat I notice that all the front rows have the things balanced on the armrests but my row? Nothing. Programme-less and empty.

We're being denied programmes just because we sit at the back of the theatre. As if we don't enjoy a good programme just because we are last-minute ticket buyers. Which is very untrue. There is no one in the world who loves programmes more than me.

To tell you the truth, I'm a little offended.

Especially because these are like, super nice programmes. They’re shiny. Very shiny. So shiny the words “wipe clean” pop up in my head and refuses to go away.

I decide very firmly not to think about the significance of that.

Instead I turn to the contents. My favourite thing in the whole world is when programmes reflect the show they're made for. And if this programme is anything to go by, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare is going to be full of drunk humour and dirty uncle jokes.

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They even have the grown-up equivalent of when you add “Earth, The Milky Way, The UNIVERSE” to the end of your address when you're a kid - providing carrier pigeons coordinates to their contact us details. Coordiantes which, according to Google, are in a wind farm off Herne Bay... I may have typed it in wrong.

Let's try again.

51°44'26.67"N 1°13'52.35"W

Oxford.

Okay, that sounds much more likely. Drunk Shakespeare. Yup, sounds like Oxford to me.

Shame though. Rather liked the idea of them all getting pissed in an off-shore wind farm.

"Hello! Are you looking forward to this evening?"

I look around. There is a woman with the most extraordinary glittery eyeshadow standing in the row behind me. She's wearing a top hat and tails. Oh my...

"Oh, yeah," I say, as the only appropriate answer when asked this question by someone wearing sequins on their eyelids.

"Is this your first time here?"

I admit it is. As someone who likes neither Shakespeare, nor drunk people, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare is not a show that I would naturally gravitate towards.

"How did you hear about it, if you don't mind me asking?"

Oh… Am I doing this? Fuck it, yes I am.

"It's a bit of a strange one," I say. "I'm doing this challenge..."

And I tell her, all about this fucking marathon of mine.

Her eyes widen and her expression turns into what I like to think of as The Marathon Face. Slightly shocked, but mainly fighting between the twin emotions of horror and amusement. A kind of: oh god, who is this crazy person, and how can I get away from them, but also, can I get that URL?

"That's..."

"Yeah."

"How did you think of that?" she asks, leaning back against the chairs as she tries to take this information in.

I give her my potted answer. Had the idea a few years back... yadda yadda yadda. You've heard it.

"So, how many have you done?"

"160. Ish." The truth is I've forgotten. It's somewhere around there.

"And how many are there?"

"About 300." Yeah. About. I don't know the answer to that one either. In my defence though, it keeps on changing. Do you remember back when I started, and my original count was 231 theatres? Those were good times.

"Are you getting deals? Because that must cost a lot!"

"Yeah..." I sigh and tell her about press tickets and all that shit. I may not have access to papering clubs, but I have contacts... Not that I even have time to use any of them anymore. It takes... so long. Like seriously. It's so much effort. All that back and forth and negotiating dates and ergh... I don't... I just can't...

Still slightly baffled she heads off, probably feeling a lot more content with the way her own life is going. My marathon tends to have that effect on people.

I go back to the programme. And yup. There she is. Natalie Boakye. Favourite drink: Processo Rose apparently. And the worst thing she's done while drunk? "Thrown up in my hands, in a club, before midnight on NYE."

I try to think what's the worst thing I've ever done while drunk. Sitting my Chemistry A-level was always my go-to answer on this one. But I think we have a new winner now: going to Magic Mike Live.

I won't be forgetting that in a hurry.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. This evening’s performance will commence in two minutes," comes a voice over the sound system. I don't think I need to tell you who that voice belongs to. "May I remind you that any recording if this performance is strictly prohibited. Anyone caught going this may be asked to leave the building."

Wow, intense. I'm glad I've got all my auditorium photos done already. I don't want another Mountview situation.

Two minutes later, my top-hatted friend is up on stage, her sparkly eyes flashing as she whips up the audience.

"Cheer if it's your a first time," she shouts. The newbies duly cheer. Yes, including me. I can't let my new friend down now, can I?

"And if you've been here before..." She puts her hands up in twin claws and the Sh!t-faced Sycophants growl in response.

She explains the concept. One actor in the company has spent the past four hours getting drunk. With the finesse of a magician's assistant, she whips back a cloth and shows us what they've had.

A bottle of vodka.

I mean, okay. That's a lot. But sitting there, alone on the little trolley, it doesn't look all that impressive.

But never fear. There's more.

She brings out a bugle. "Who wants to have a go blowing on my horn?"

Someone in the front row volunteers. He isn't very good at it.

"Don't worry, you've got an hour to practice," she says.

Hopefully it won't take an hour, because that horn needs to get blown as soon as our drunk actor starts to sober up. On the sound of the horn, they get given another drink to down.

Next up, a gong. That goes to an audience member down the other end. Same rules.

Then there’s the bucket. A very large bucket. The sort they'd use for laundry in a bleak drama set in a mining town.

I don’t want to think about the bucket.

Not the wipe-cleaness of the programmes.

But just in case, our host has her own weapons. Which she'll bring out if the actor is either too sober, or... too far gone.

She runs off, giving way to the cast and... is that... is that Imagine Dragons? A... a slightly medieval sounding version of Imagine Dragons? It is! It's Believer! And the reason I know this (and I swear, if you tell anyone this, it'll be the end of you) is because I actually really like Imagine Dragons. Yeah, yeah. I know. They don't really mesh with the whole... whatever I've got going on, But look, some days I just need more from my tunes than Amaranthe can deliver. And Imagine Dragons does the business. Now you, shut up or I'll start commenting on what you have on your Spotify playlist.

Anyway, those banging beats done, we're off. Hamlet. With Hamlet himself played by David Ellis in a post a bottle of vodka capacity.

It doesn't take long for that bottle of vodka to make itself known, and Ellis is soon sucking Saul Marron's finger and making incest jokes with Claudius.

"We need a Polonius!"

Oh yeah. They don't have one of those. Turns out even when you cut down Hamlet to an hour and change, you still need a Polonius.

The audience is called open to provide, and a brave soul is brought on stage and given a hat to wear.

"Can you remind us what your first name is?" they ask him, in possibly the cruellest move that has ever happened on stage.

"Err, yes?" says the newly hatted Polonius, probably having GCSE English Lit flashbacks right now.

"Yes? Ah! The old Dutch name, Yaass," says Madeleine Schofield's Gertrude.

He's soon dismissed back to his seat, to enjoy an evening of Hamlet newly set in Broad City.

A few minutes later, the bugle sounds. Or at least, there's a spluttering whisper which I can only take to be an attempt on the instrument.

"You thought this was going too smoothly?" Ellis asks the bugle-player, and Boakye comes back onstage to pour out a bottle of beer and hand the pint to our Hamlet.

Ellis takes a break in drinking to tell us that when he's not being an actor, he works in a restaurant, and he just got fired tired.

Someone awws in the audience and he points in their general direction. "Someone went there. Thank you."

When we get to that speech, you know the one. The speech. The soliloquy. It's taken as a run-up and collapses into laughter halfway through the first line. We all hold our breaths as Ellis attempts to force the rest out in a single stream, and the relief when he gets to the end is released in a massive cheer.

The gong goes.

More beer!

Ellis wanders on and off stage, the pint glass in hand. Even when he's in the wings he manages to distract his fellow actors, as they react to his off-stage antics.

Boakye keeps a close eye on him. Replacing his dagger with a stuffed snake ("Nagini!") so he can't hurt himself, or anyone else. Although to be fair, he does his best. Even chucking the poor creature in the direction of the front row.

As for Yorrick, Ellis picks something out of the skulls eyesocket. "Sorry," he tells Beth-Louise Priestley's Horatia. "I stuck some chewing gum in there earlier."

But no amount of picking can save the ill-fated Ophelia. Or what's left of her anyway.

When her shrouded body is carried out on stage, Ellis makes a grab for it. "She's light as a feather," he announces. "But not stiff as a board." And with that, he lobs the corpse into the audience.

"No!" says Boakye. "No throwing things."

Ellis looks suitably contrite.

He still can't be trusted with a sword though. As Ellis and Matthew Seager's Laertes prepare to fight, Boakye runs on stage to grab the weapons, returning a second later with a pair of inflatables.

"I've got a stiff banana," yells Ellis as he attacks Seager with it.

Well, quite.

After that, it's only a matter of time before everyone is dead.

And as the cast all stick their middle fingers up at the audience, we get some more Imagine Dragons to play us out.

Ah, fuck yeah. It's Warrior. Yasss. I mean, yes!

What a fucking tune.

... Just don't fucking quote me on that.

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The Safe Word is Unicorn

You’ve read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. We’ve all read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. The tears. The drama. The fist-pump to female empowerment. A battle cry for female desire. It was an unmissable read.

I can tell you right now, that’s not what you’ll be getting here.

Because I do not want to go to Magic Mike Live.

Let me say that again, just so that we’re really clear: I do not, under any circumstances, want to go to Magic Mike Live.

The fact that I have to go to Magic Mike Live, in order to check off the theatre that lurks within the Leicester Square monolith that is the Hippodrome Casino, is something that has been giving me a great deal of stress over the past six months.

And it’s not because I’m a prude.

The fact that I’m a prude has nothing to do with it.

“I would honestly rather go to a real strip club,” I tell Helen and Ellen, as we do our best to get very, very drunk, somewhere below street level in Soho. (“Pre-loading,” Helen calls it).

“Really?” Helen is baffled by this. She’s looking forward to the show. Or rather, she’s looking forward to me not enjoying the show. “Why?”

“Because in a strip club, you are the one in power. You can tell the dancers to go away without feeling that you’re ruining things. It’s a one-on-one transaction. Not part of this, whole… thing.” I wave my hands about to demonstrate the scale of the… thing. One drink down and I’m already getting expansive. This place doesn’t mess around with their measures.

Earlier today I’d done something I’d never done before.

I told Twitter where I was going to be tonight.

I’ve always been very careful not to do that. Stalkers be scary, you know.

But I’m not worried about that anymore. If anything, I was courting that danger. Encouraging it. Asking for it. “Bring your arsenic and find me in Soho,” I told my followers.

A jokey “kill me,” that was only half a joke.

I really don’t want to go to Magic Mike Live.

A co-worker of mine went last week. She loved it.

“They’re really good dancers,” she said excitedly the next morning.

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who works at one of the most famous dance-houses in the world.

“But is there…” I pause, not wanting to use the word grinding, but not being able to come up with a suitable alternative. “Audience interaction?”

Yeah, okay. This is the real issue. Some rando stranger grinding on me is not something I want. If it were, I would go to a club, and you know what, I'd probably get a free drink into the bargain.

“Oh yeah. Where are you sitting?”

“In the balcony.”

“You won’t be taken on stage then.”

Thank fuck. “So, I’m safe then?”

She laughs at that. “No. They will find you!”

“Oh…” Oh fuck… “I think I’m going to have to get really drunk.”

Half way through the second drink and my head is starting to spin. Whatever the fuck they put in these cocktails is working. Every time I turn my head, I feel like I’m leaving my thoughts behind. That’s good, I tell myself. A couple more sips and I’ll be in a full on dissociative state. Just what I need to get through the next few hours.

It’s time to go.

We stagger back up to the street and start walking down to Leicester Square.

Helen and Ellen are all in a rush, though I keep on saying we have plenty of time.

Helen dives across Shaftesbury Avenue. Right across the road.

I jog behind with a squeal of “we’re going to dieeee,” before remembering that getting hit by a car was a great excuse for not going to see Magic Mike Live tonight. No luck though.

I point out the casino, but really there’s no need. Even from the back, it does rather loom.

There’s a kind of mural thing going on here. All lights and images and I’m not really able to focus on the presise nature of it, but I feel I should take a photo anyway.

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“Sorry,” says a bloke, who on seeing me taking a photo of the wall display thing decides he also wants in on the action.

“Don’t worry, I’m done.”

“You also seeing the show?”

“Yes,” I say, in the tones of someone saying they’re just about to sit their Chemistry A-level.

“We are too!” He sounds super-duper excited about the whole thing.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

“Oh yeah. Aren’t you?”

“Not really.”

“Ah. Well, see you in there!” he says with a cheery goodbye.

I have really got to get my shit sorted. Me not having a good night is fine. I mean, it’s not fine. But it’s fine.

However, me being the cause of someone else not having a good night… well, that’s taking the whole marathon thing too far, isn’t it?

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In a move of openness that must have the Royal Opera House nashing their teeth, the box office is fully open to the street.

I stop, the cogs in my brain slowed by the excess alcohol.

“Do we go in here, or…?”

A man on the door sees my confusion and steps in. “Are you picking up your tickets?” he asks.

I nod. “Yeah.”

He waves me through and we join the queue.

There’s a man leaning on the counter and as I give my name to the lady at box office he starts rummaging in a Magic Mike Live branded gift bag.

“How many of you are there?” he asks.

“Three.”

He pulls out three envelopes. “Unfortunately a few of our cast members have a bug and won’t be performing,” he says. “There’s a drinks voucher in here, and a letter. We’d like you to come back and see the show properly, for free of course, as long as you promise to buy lots of drinks.”

Gosh, well. Okay. We take the envelopes, and our tickets, and join the queue to get in.

There's a red carpet.

A young woman stands on the door. She has a stack of envelopes in her hand.

“We should put our letters away,” I hiss at the other two. “Might get another one!”

Ellen gives me a look. I don’t think she’s ever seen me this drunk before.

“Max, are you leaning against the wall?” she asks.

I may be leaning against the wall. Hard to tell. It keeps on moving.

She gives me another look, but puts away her envelope all the same.

“Hi ladies!” says the young woman on the door. “A few of our cast members are off sick. The others will still be going on, and it’s the same show, exactly the same length. But we’d like to offer you’re the chance to come back and see it as it should be seen. For free of course,” she says, counting out more envelopes for us.

We now have two envelopes each.

Score.

If the bag checker notices this excess of envelopes he doesn’t say anything.

He does pick up on Helen’s water bottle though.

“It’s water!” she protests, but it’s no good. She has to go outside and down the whole thing.

“It’s very fancy in here,” I say, noting the old mirror with the Hippodrome’s name faded on the glass and the chandelier handing overhead. “Watch out if you don’t want to be in the photo.” Ellen jumps out the way.

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“I’m very well hydrated,” Helen says on her return, and as the bag checker wishes us a good evening, we head up the stairs.

The stairs take us up straight to the loos. The Hippodrome clearly know their audience.

“It’s a ninety minute show, ladies,” says an usher. “Toilets are here and down there.”

I hang around, people watching as Helen and Ellen partake of the facilities. Everyone is dressed really fancy. Like, really fancy. Not just going out fancy. But going out out fancy. Hotpants and sequins and satin and tiny mini dresses.

I look down at my own efforts. A black dress. Vivienne Westwood. It’s really nice. But not nearly showy enough. I consider opening another button for added cleavage, but my fingers are all fumbly and I don’t think I can manage it. The mourning brooch pinned to my lapel was probably also a mistake. As were the stompy boots. Although considering my wall-leaning, perhaps its best I didn’t attempt heels.

Plus, I doubt any of these women just came from church.

“They have so adapted this place for women,” says Helen on her return. “There are urinals in the ladies’ loos. They must have transferred them over. Although you know what Caroline Criado Perez said about unisex loos?”

I do know what she says about unisex looks. “Only men use unisex loos with urinals. But they also use the ones that don’t have urinals. So, there’s even longer queues for the ones without urinals than if they were just ladies’ and gents’. Wait…” I stop. “Are we seriously having feminist discourse outside the loos at Magic Mike?”

“Oh, look, a hen party,” says Ellen, bringing the tone right back to where it needs to me.

The Hen, in her shiny satin sash, looks over and gives us a big grin, and we all grin back.

We go to the bar.

A girl walks past with a massive fishbowl of a drink.

“Wow,” says Ellen, gapping at the drink.

The girl laughs. “They just told me it’s a ninety minute show without a break,” she says with a shrug of resignation.

There are screens all over the place, warning us to take our seats because the show is about to start. I check my phone. There’s still ten whole minutes. I mean, I get that moving hundreds of drunk women into their seats might be tricky, but ten minutes!

“Hello ladies, are you seeing the show tonight?”

“Yup!” says Ellen, looking up from the drinks menu.

“Well, the show’s about to start, so you should probably take your seats. You can order your drinks from there. Don’t worry, it’s exactly the same menu, same choice, same everything.”

“Oh, okay then!”

“Can I see your tickets?”

I hand them over and he points us in the right direction, but a second later, we’re lost, having gone up a flight of stairs that we should not have gone up.

“I’m going to get a programme,” I say, spotting a merch desk on our way back down.

I glance over at the price list, kinda squinting as I do so because I don’t want to know. Ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty probably.

“That’s seven pounds, please,” says the woman behind the desk.

Oh. “Oh!”

Well, I mean, it’s hardly bargain of the century, but selling a programme for only seven pounds to an audience who are probably drunk enough to empty out their purses on the counter…. well, that is some Saint Simeon Stylites levels of ascetic restraint right there. Hang on, did I just say the word ascetic? Fucking hell, I must really be drunk right now. I’m not sure I even know how to spell that when sober. Or pronounce it. Wait, what’s going on?

“Are you taking pictures of the merch, Helen?” I ask, spotting Helen kneeling on the ground in front of the glass display.

“Just of the underpants.”

Well, that’s alright then.

“I don’t want one, but how much are these?” she asks, now back on her feet and poking through a bowl of temporary tattoos.

“Five pounds,” says the merch lady. Very patiently.

“We should probably go in…” I suggest.

We find the door. There are two ticket checkers. Both men.

“There are a lot of men working here,” I say, looking around. “Almost all men.”

Yes, there was the young woman on the main door. And the one at the merch desk. But everywhere else: bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke.

“And they’re all so nice!” says Ellen. “Like the guy who told us to go to our seats. He could have just said it, but he made the effort to tell us we could order drinks in there.”

Helen is nodding away enthusiastically. “And it’s not just nice it’s…”

“Gentlemanly,” I say.

“Yes!”

“And like, not sleazy. At all.”

There’s more enthusiastic nodding from the pair of them as we get to the front of the queue.

“I’m just going to put this stamp on your hand,” says one of the ticket checkers, with the air of a paediatric nurse telling their young charge not to worry about the needle. It really won’t hurt.

“It’s a unicorn!” says Ellen, examining her new hand print.

I look at mine. I have to twist my arm in a very unnatural way to see it properly. It is a unicorn!

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“Oh dear… it’s really small in here,” says Ellen as we go into the auditorium. She doesn’t sound overly happy about that. She’s not a fan of intimate theatre. Even when the performers are fully clothed.

“Hang on ladies, I’ll be right with you,” says yet another (male) usher.

We hang around as he seats another group.

“Oh god…” I say to the world in general.

“I know!” says a woman right back. “I’m dreading this. I keep on thinking about all the failed decisions in my life that brought me up to this point…”

I nod along sympathetically. Me too, love. Me fucking too.

A minute later, our usher is back. He bounds over with a grin, executing a neat spin as he approaches us.

“You alright?”

“Yeah!” I say, very much impressed by the spin. I show him the tickets and he points out our seats.

Front row.

Oh.

I remember booking these. Vaguely.

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“You’re over here. One, two, three,” he says, counting out the seats. “Wait, hang on,” he says as I make off. “Just some things I need to tell you first.” And he launches into a short speech. We’re allowed to take photos. But we need to keep the cameras close to us. He demonstrates, holding an imaginary phone close to his chest. “No leaning on the railing. The dancers will be moving around everywhere. So keep your drinks close, and your bags under your seat.”

And with that, we’re released.

The seats are wide and comfy. And there’s plenty of leg room.

The leg room is worrying me. As is the glass platform that is running around the outside of the balcony.

The lights go down.

A roar goes up from the audience. A blast of pure animal noise.

A male MC in a blue suit comes out on stage and starts stirring up the crowd.

A front of houser comes over with a drinks menu.

He crouches down and lean in as Helen and Ellen order.

“What do you want?” asks Ellen, handing me the menu.

I stare at it, but can’t make anything out. Is this even in English? It’s all just swirly lines on a page.

I hand it back. “It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t want anything.”

“Are you sure?” asks Ellen.

“Err.”

“It free,” Helen reminds me.

“Shit, err…” but it’s no good. It’s too dark. And too loud. I can’t focus. “What are you having?”

Ellen says something but it sounds like nonsense string of syllables.

“That sounds good,” I say. I trust Ellen’s drinks order than I do my own sense right now.

The MC has gone out into the stalls. He’s talking to an audience member.

A dancer comes over.

Oh, god. He’s grinding on her. The grinding has started.

This is so unpleasant.

The MC asks if she’s wet.

I am so grossed out right now.

She says no, but that answer just earns her a trip on stage where a dancer dressed as a firefighter pulls out a hose from his trousers. It squirts.

No euphemism intended on my part. That’s all on them.

The woman looks down out her outfit. Covered in a pink mess.

“Stop!” she shouts.

The dancer stops.

We all stop.

Lights change. A disembodied voice comes over the speakers.

Who is that?

Channing Tatum?

What the fuck is going on?

The audience member is outraged. This isn’t what she wants. Male MCs asking if she’s moist, and dancers throwing around double entendres. And she’s not having it.

A microphone descends from the rig.

She’s taking over.

Ellen leans into me. “I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

Nor do I.

Nor. Do. I.

But it looks like we’re under a new regime. The girls are taking over.

She wants the firefighter costume off. He duly obliges, throwing it into the audience and revealing a crisp white t-shirt and nice pair of jeans underneath.

Blimey, that’s… well, that’s much better.

“He’s kinda hot,” says Helen.

I nod. He is kinda hot.

And so it begins.

Our new MC introduces the dancers. We have a CEO. A man holding a baby (not our baby, she is quick to clarify. That’s not part of the fantasy going on here). The boy next door.

The audience duly roars with every new revelation.

The dancers strut their stuff in routines that seem mainly made up of lighting changes. But even in my sodden state I can see that they’re not bad. These guys can dance.

And they don’t stay still.

A minute on stage, and they are off, prowling around the audience, shifting seats around to give themselves room to show off their moves.

Our drinks arrive.

Mine is very pink. It has a straw.

I give it a sip.

It seems to be primarily made up of sugar, with the merest dash of alcohol.

“It’s very sweet,” says Ellen. She puts her’s down under her chair.

I carry on drinking.

Helen tries to say something to me, but I can’t hear her. A second later she’s showing me her phone. “The way you look next to them…” it says. She points at the girls sitting next to me.

They’re screaming. Properly screaming. And bouncing around in their seats.

They are very drunk.

Drunker than me.

Drunker than I have ever been in my life.

I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to get that drunk. The world would run out of alcohol before that happened.

As dancers gyrate their way around the glass platform, the girls scream at them, wave at them, reach for them.

They are so happy.

And all the while, young men in smart shirts and red aprons dart between the rows, taking orders and bringing drinks.

I catch Helen looking at me again. “You’re watching the audience, not the stage!” she shouts over the music.

“I’m here as a professional,” I shout back. But she’s right. I am watching the audience. It’s fascinating stuff. Seeing the excitement. The enjoyment. The letting go.

A rope descends from the rig just in front of us. I nudge Ellen and point at it.

We raise our eyebrows at each other.

Looks like we’re going to get some aerial work going on.

Someone appears next to our row.

He’s not a dancer. He’s a stage manager or something.

He grabs the rope and starts tightening knots and getting it ready and… gosh, he’s very attractive.

Fuck. No. Stop Maxine. Don’t do that. Don’t perv on the poor stage managers, who are just trying to do their jobs.

Honestly, it is so on brand of me to go to a strip show and end up getting a crush on one of the backstage team.

I look back at the stage.

The dancers are doing their very utmost. Shirts are coming off. Abs revealed. All very impressive.

And our MC is keeping them under strict control.

A dancer rubs her shoulders before moving down to her feet.

“I don’t need my foot rubbed,” she snaps back. “I’m trying to do a show here. What about her?” She points at a woman in the front row, and the dancer trots over as bidden, sits on the edge of the stage, and holds out his hand, ready to receive the audience member’s foot.

She needs a little encouragement from our MC, but soon enough, her sandled foot is getting a rub down.

Our MC has found herself a prodigy. A young neophyte she wishes to mold into the perfect man.

“What’s the most important thing when dealing with a woman?” she asks him.

There’s a pause as he considers the answer. He leans in, speaking into her microphone. “Permission,” he whispers.

The effect is electric. The room almost bursts as 300 women levitate from their seats at that word.

The MC decides what we need is a safe word. “Unicorn,” she decides. If anything happens that we don’t want to be happening, just say unicorn “and they will listen!” she promises.

Women are starting to come up on stage. They get picked up, danced over, and gyrated against.

A few of them cover their faces with their hands not knowing what to do with their faces as they get lain back on tables and danced on top of.

“Look, they’re sweeping!” says Ellen, pointing back at the stage where yes, a few stage hands have run on to clean things up while we were all distracted.

My neighbour flaps her hand in front of me. “Look! Look!” she says in my ear. “He's coming up!”

I look. One of the dancers is climbing up to the balcony.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend, or a partner,” says our MC, “sing you your favourite song?”

The dancers come back out, this time with instruments.

Helen jumps in her seat. “This is my favourite song,” she shouts and laughs, unable to keep her joy contained.

I can’t tell you what Helen’s favourite song is. I don’t know it. I haven’t recognised any of the music tonight come to think of it.

But I seem to be the only one because everyone is having great fun singing along.

I sit back and decide to wait until they bring out Marilyn Manson’s greatest hits.

A dancer comes out with an arm full of roses and starts handing them out, even lobbing a few into the balcony.

Helen catches one.

She's doing really well tonight.

And then it comes. The bit I’d been dreading.

“You’ve all had hard days,” says our MC. “You should get a lapdance! Just remember. The safe word is unicorn. Say it if you need to and the dancers will listen.”

“They are working fast,” I say, watching as the dancer assigned to the balcony moves and grinds his way along the front row, not spending more than a few seconds on each person.

He pauses a few times, to push back hair and whisper in ears, but never for long. There are a lot of people to get through.

Finishing the end of the row, he crosses the aisle and dives into the row behind us. From there he goes to the other end of our section, working on one woman then leaving again.

“It’s beginning to feel a bit pointed,” says Ellen, not sounding overly disappointed at not getting a dancer thrusting at her.

But that’s not it. I’ve noticed something. It’s been happening all night.

They’re reading the room. The dancers. Or at least someone who is telling the dancers.

Girls wearing shorts were lain down on stage. Ones wearing trousers had their legs lifted in the air. Larger girls where presented with dancers to feel up. Smaller ones were lifted around.

And those three woman sitting in the balcony who weren’t on the feet, dancing around with everyone else? Yeah, someone noticed that they weren’t totally into it. And they made sure that they didn’t need to unicorn their way out of anything.

Down in the stalls, a woman has spilt her drink. One of the red aproned front of housers runs over with a roll of paper towels. He spins out reams of the stuff. Feet of it. Metres. Making a spectacle of the paper towels flying around as he cleans up the table for her.

And I want to laugh, because that’s it, isn’t it? That’s how you look after an audience. Not just one composed of drunk women. Any audience. You look after them. Make them feel cared for. And safe. And give them an out. Just in case they need it.

“It had the kind of camaraderie you find in night club bathrooms,” says Ellen as we try to find our way out. “Girls lending each other their mascara, you know?”

“That was an amazing feeling,” says Helen, inspecting her rose. “Like, the audience is the most important part of a show. You can’t have one without them. But to feel it… to have the experience focused on you…”

Yup.

The show isn’t for me. I didn’t expect for it to be.

But what I expected it to be was awful.

And it wasn't that either.

It was all perfectly fine.

In a week when I have been thinking so much about audience consent, from the assault on audiences at 10,000 Gestures, to the warning-laden A Web in the Heart earlier today, Magic Mike Live feels like a shining example of how to treat them. And yes, Boris Charmatz fans may point out that the results here are hardly art. And the extreme behaviour of his dancers served some higher purpose. But in 2019, as the world goes to shit, perhaps what we need, what we all need, is not some choreographer’s intellectual fantasy, but reasonably priced programmes, ushers who actively want their guests to have a good time, and a safe word to arm ourselves with.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to concentrate very hard on not throwing up as I try to find the night bus home.

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Glitter in the Rain

I’m really happy right now. Like, stupidly, happy. Bouncing down the street, happy. I feel like the Sharky Twins in Wolfie, throwing pocketfulls of sequins all over the place as a physical  manifestation of all the shiny joy that’s gurgling inside me. I have no reason for this happiness. I’ve been to some great fucking theatres recently. That helps. And people keep on smiling at me. That’s true. And also strange. Not sure what’s going on there. You’d think reading a black-bound copy of one of Kafka's short stories would be enough to put anyone off, but no. There they are, on the tube, gurning at me. It’s so weird I can’t help but gurn right back.

It’s all very troubling.

My happiness has grown to such excessive levels that people are starting to notice.

“That’s very positive of you!” said one of my co-workers this morning.

And she was right. It was very positive of me.

And it wasn’t even ten o’clock. Far too early to be positive about anything, let alone work.

If this goes on any longer, I’m going to get my Goth-card revoked.

But even after a full day listening to Nightwish on blast, I’m still springing my way through the rain like Tigger after a long session snorting lines of icing sugar at a birthday party.

Oh well. Might as well make the most of it before the inevitable crash sends my friends into intervention-crisis-mode again.

Damp of clothes, but not of spirits, I arrive at the Soho Theatre. it’s my second trip here of the marathon. I seem to be working my way down from the top. I’ve done the upstairs studio, now it’s the turn of the theatre space on the second floor, with only the basement left to go.

I give my name at the box office, basking in the reflection from the neon pink surround.

The lady behind the box office stares at me, waiting.

“Oh sorry,” I say. I had forgotten where I was. The theatre of a thousand shows. “It’s for Citysong.”

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What's art got to do, got to do with it

There’s just so many characters that I don’t give the tiniest shit about. So many scenes that don’t drive on the action. Infuriating, when there is clearly such a strong three act structure buried under all this nonsense (the rise of Ike and Tina Tina, the fall of Ike and Tina Turner, the rise of Tina Turner without Ike Turner).

Legs stretched, everyone settles back in for an uncomfortable second act.

At least this one is short.

There’s a shiver of anticipation through the audience as Nkeki Obi-Melekwe quotes Tuner's most famous lyric: what’s love got to do with it.

Is it coming? Are we getting the big number?

We are. Thank the theatre gods.

After that, things start to perk up. Big tunes! Big ambition! And even bigger hair! This is what we are all here for.

Over by the far wall, the ushers have all crept in to watch the finale. Either it’s an unmissable show, or something serious is about to kick off in the audience. Either way, I’m excited.

As Obi-Melekwe blazes out some bangers, a few people get to their feet to bop along. But they are spread out thin up here.

It’s a different matter in the stalls.

Front rowers stretch out their hands to Obi-Melekwe, and she obliges them by coming forward to grab them. You can feel the crackle of connection between them. Even from up here.

That’s where the real Tina Turner fans are sitting. They’re having great fun down there.

These are the people who wake up and pour their morning coffee into their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical mug. They'll walk the dog in their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, twenty-five pound glitter t-shirt. They'll stick the kids' drawings on the fridge with their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical magnet.

These are the people who genuinely want to hear more about Tina Turner’s grandmother.

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A leopard always contours

Well, this is strange. It's not often that I feel underdressed at the theatre. Speaking as someone who once wore a dinosaur print sweatshirt to a black tie gala at the Royal Opera House, I'm usually quite content, bar the odd attempt at theme dressing, to rock up in whatever I'm wearing that day.

But here I am, with 116 theatre trips under my patent-leather belt this year alone, and I am feeling distinctly awkward about my appearance.

I'm standing in the long box office queue underneath the weighty canopy of the Savoy hotel, and it's there. That skittish, itchy feeling that comes when you realise just how out of place you are.

And I am severely underdressed. I see that now. Everywhere around me, ladies are in full glam: false lashes, their cheekbones contoured into diamond-cut angles, and displaying a safari park's worth of leopard print. My go-to look of the moment: grungy t-shirt and vintage men's 49er jacket, just isn't cutting it amongst this flock of exotic-looking creatures.

We shuffle our way forwards, as massive cars slide their way off the Strand, slipping their way under the canopy to deposit their passengers at the front door of the hotel. Men in top hats and tails run forward to open doors for them.

A lady in ATG livery shouts at us. The queue is just for ticket pick up. If we have a ticket, we're to go straight in. There's a catch in her throat, as if she's minutes away from losing her voice.

Eventually, I make it inside the great golden doors of the theatre. The box office has little ornate hatches set into the wall, like an old fashioned movie theatre. Not surprising at this place is a palace of art deco. Sham art-deco, as the place was (re)built in the nineties, but still. There's some serious thirties-glam going on all the same. The foyer is painted silver. The box office counters are gold. And the queuing is lifted straight from the great depression.

These tiny box office windows always make me think of the Bocca della Verità in Italy. The Mouth of Truth. A huge stone mask with a gaping hole for a mouth. As Gregory Peck explains to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, "the legend is, if you are given to lying, and put your hand in there, it will be bitten off."

Thankfully, I don't have to give a false name today, and my hand returns unscathed and holding a ticket.

I turn around to head inside, but their's a rope blocking my path. I have to go back outside in order to get inside the theatre.

If anything, the queue as got even larger. All the doors are blocked by people pressing forward. Everyone managing to block everyone else. A perfect storm of leopard print.

One of the Savoy top hats comes over to talk to the ATG lady.

"You need to move them," he says. "The cars can't get through."

ATG lady raises her voice, ordering us to move off the road. But there's nowhere for us to go to. The queue is three doors wide and ten people deep, and growing all the time.

"Let's just go in here," says a group of four women in leopard print as they come out the box office. They aim for the tiny sliver of space in front of me and elbow their way in.

"The car can't move," persists the top hot.

ATG lady doesn't look at him. She knows about the damn car. But she also knows that fifty people are considerably harder to move than a single car.

Gradually, I'm jostled towards the door, and I stumble through, coming to a halt just in front of the bag-checker.

He looks inside, and then takes hold of the bottom, giving it a good feel.

A really good feel. He's not letting go. I can see his hands curling around something through the fabric.

Something long and cylindrical.

"It's my umbrella," I explain.

He let's go and I'm waved in towards the next person in this entrance procedure.

"Three floors down," says the ticket checker, glancing at my ticket.

I'm in the stalls tonight. A fancy seat for a fancy theatre.

The stairs are painted yellow. With big green circles clustered in corners as if the walls have developed some sort of fungal growth.

Okay. Not that fancy then.

It takes me the full three-floor descent to realise the green circles are meant to be grapes.

It's a relief to step into the auditorium and be back into the world of towering silver walls and upholstered art deco. The seat numbers are stitched into diamonds shapes on the seats and even the fire exit sign has its own extravengent frame to sit within. But this is all background detail to what is going on up on the stage.

A fuck-off massive 9 to 5 sign, complete with LED screen, light up lettering, and enough glitter to take a Liberace tribute act on world tour.

Two young women come and sit next to me. They're not wearing leopard print, but they make up for it by each having two drinks. A glass of wine. And a cocktail. They have to take it in turns to get into their chairs as the drinks mean they don't have any hands free to go about the business of taking off their jackets and flipping down the seats.

"Are we allowed to take photos?" one asks.

"No!" cries the other, scandalised.

"Oh, I just wanted a selfie with the 9 to 5..."

"Oh, that's fine. I thought you meant during the show."

"Nah. Just a selfie with the 9 to 5."

"Not during the show?"

"No, now."

"They don't let you take photos during the show."

"But it's fine now?"

"Yeah, it's fine now."

That settled, they take selfies together. They're having a great time.

I should have brought a cocktail. And a friend. This is totally the wrong show to be going to solo. And sober.

The face of the alarm clock in the 9 to 5 transforms into Dolly Parton's face, and we are treated to an intro from the country queen.

The audience cheers. And drinks.

As the show progresses, the drinkers become drunker, and the non-drinkers grow ever restless.

A woman in the row in front turns around to glare at my neighbours. They've been chattering a good deal.

They don't notice the glare. And continue their conversation.

By the second act, most of the audience is properly drunk.

The glaring lady has resorted to adding a new manoeuvre to her repertoire of admonishments - a finger raised to pursed lips.

The young women giggle in reply.

"Shh!" one hushes sarcastically in reply.

I now know why the front of house areas are painted with grapes.

"Someone's in our seats," says one of the leopard-print ladies, holding a fish-bowl full of some pink-coloured concoction. She pouts. Actually pouts. Her lower lip jutting out to show her distress as she waves towards the filled-seats.

"Mum, you're in the wrong row..."

The glarers have multiplied, and are on full tutting duty for the second act.

But even an army of glarers isn't enough to interrupt that good time being had by a leopard-lady in the front row.

She sways in her seat, almost in time with the music, claps along to the beat in her heart, and cheers every time one of the trio of 9-to-5ers on stage gets one over the MAN.

But when she turns around in her seat to talk excitedly to the person behind her, it gets too much for the glarers.

Across the stalls I spot an usher rushing down the opposite aisle. She pauses by the doorway and stands on tip-toe to get a good look at our leopard-lady.

Someone must have tattled.

A few minutes later, a different usher comes rushing down the nearest aisle, wearing the expression of someone who has just drawn the short straw.

She crouches down next to leopard-lady and whispers something.

Leopard-lady nods. She gets it. She'll be quiet.

The usher smiles gratefully and retreats.

Job done.

Well, almost.

Leopard-lady gets up from her seat, swinging her handbag over her shoulder, she heads for the exit.

The whispering usher chases after her.

There's nothing through that door but the way out.

A minute later and leopard-lady is back, in her seat, and clapping away.

No one tries to stop her fun this time.

As the cast finish their curtain calls, she waves each of the trio off stage. And they wave back.

Aww.

Someone really needs to set her up with the mayor of Hornchurch. Something tells me they'd get on just fabulously.

In the meantime, perhaps she can teach me how to contour...

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The woman in black is dancing with me, cheek to cheek

“Look!” I say, pushing my chair back from my desk so that my colleague Martha can see my outfit. “I’m the woman in black!”

She’s impressed.

At least, I think she’s impressed.

She doesn’t look impressed.

Perhaps I should have gone harder with my theme dressing. Worn a bonnet. Contracted some terrible wasting disease.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t look any different to any other day. I took the black many years ago. I don’t need to dress up. I’m already the woman in black.

By the end of the day, I’m feeling less enthused about my sartorial choices. The long black wafty skirts of my dress have already become the victim to a splash of sriracha from my lunch and a white stain further down towards the hem that I can’t identify the source of.

Oh well. I suppose I can just blame it on the wasting disease.

And anyway, I have other things to think about. Like what to have for dinner.

We decided on the Delaunay Counter, as it’s just around the corner from the Fortune Theatre and I wanted schnitzel. But which one? Pork or chicken? With a silent apology to my ancestors, I go for pork. With a salted caramel hot chocolate on the side. A concoction that turns out to be a glass mug filled with a chocolate sauce that requires a spoon in order to consume it, topped with whipped cream so thick it just got a job writing for the Daily Mail. Thus I have put together what may well be a contender for the least kosher meal ever devised.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Martha admits, not for the first time, as we walk over to the theatre.

Martha is one of those innocent souls that doesn’t mind admitting when she’s a bit scared.

“It’ll be fine,” I say with the faux-confidence of someone who really doesn’t want to see a scary play by herself.

You see, I’ve seen The Woman in Black before. Took my whole family for my brother’s birthday years’ and years’ ago. Ghost Stories was in the West End at the time and he fancied a bit of theatrical horror in his life. I don’t remember why we chose The Woman in Black over Ghost Stories. Perhaps the fact that one of them feels like it’s been running forever, while the other was only going for a few months had something to do with it. I did end up going to see Ghost Stories a few weeks’ later. By myself. Still get the shudders every time I sense a whiff of bleach in the air.

But The Woman in Black should be fine. Martha would be okay. Unless…

“I wonder if we’ll be sitting on the aisle,” I ponder aloud.

“I hope not,” says Martha. She hasn’t seen the play before. But she’s an experienced theatre-goer and knows full well that bad things can happen to people sitting on the aisle. “Gosh, it’s tiny!”

It is tiny. The foyer of the Fortune is so small the box office is practically out the street.

After picking up my tickets, we have to back out slowly the way we had come in order to squeeze ourselves back in through the door that will take us down to the stalls.

Or take Martha down to the stalls, at least.

So storms on ahead while I try to juggle bag, tickets, and purse in pursuit of programme ownership.

“Sorry,” I say to the world in general as I side-step the programme seller in order to fit myself into the tiny bit of foyer space going spare in order to negotiate this important transaction.

Tickets stuffed in pocket, purse returned to bag, and programme stowed safely under my arm, I make my way down the stairs and try and find Martha.

There’s a sign at the bottom. Stalls on the right, bar on the left.

Well, she can’t have turned right. I still have the tickets. She must have gone left.

I go into the bar. No sign of her.

Oh god.

The ghost has got her. The Woman in Black.

Not me. The other one.

Shit.

I get out my phone and send her a message. “I’m in the bar.”

A woman in ATG livery rushes past. “The show’s about the start if you care to go through,” she says cheerfully.

I want to tell her that her theatre ghost has kidnapped my friend, but she’s already gone, telling the next person that they are free to bring their drinks in with them.

I check my phone. No reply. Martha never doesn’t reply.

She’s definitely dead.

Shit. I mean… who’s going to proofread my programmes now…

Oh, and other reasons for being sad.

I’m frantic now. The usher tasked with ushering us all into the theatre is looking at me. She wants me to go in.

I turn around, ready to search the bar for any tell-tale trails of ectoplasm on the carpet.

Martha beams at me, phone in hand.

“The loos are so strange!” she says, as if I haven’t been having a panic attack imagining her being trapped underground by a spectre with an impeccable taste in dresses. “There’s so little room they’re like, fitted in a triangle.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I say weakly. “Shall we go in?!”

We go in.

No one checks our tickets, and there’s no one to direct us to our seats.

I glance at the nearest seat. It’s marked with a 1.

“We must be around the other side,” I say, leading the way across the back of the stalls to the other aisle.

I pull the tickets out of my pocket and check them again.

“Here we are, row G,” I say. “And we’re on the aisle! Do you want to-“

“No,” says Martha, before I can even finish the question.

Right then.

I step back and let her into the safety of the second seat.

Looks like I’m going to have to be the brave one tonight.

There’s a group of young boys sitting behind us. Very young. Very loud too. Filled with bravado and pre-teen hormones.

This is going to be fun.

Heavy curtains are drawn over the doors and the lights dim. This is it. It’s happening. There’s no escape now.

The play starts gently. A man. On stage. Reading what sounds like a diary entry. He’s really not very good. I sympathise. I’m not good at public speaking either.

There’s another bloke to. An actor. He’s trying to give the reader advice. Less description. More emotion.

I frown at him. Fucking rude. The reader is doing his best! And some of us are just naturally wordy…

Now he’s explaining that recorded sound can replace the reader’s florid paragraphs. Which is all very well for a reading, but what am I supposed to do?

Oh dear. I’m beginning to empathise too much with this reader-chappy. Not good. Not good at all. I mean, usually it would be. I’d almost go so far as to consider it excellent. A positive boon, even. But feeling as if you are sliding your feet into the shoes of a character in a horror story is never going to end well.

He’s getting the hang of it now, this reading-aloud stuff. Even trying his hand at a bit of acting, dropping accents and charactisation all over the place as the pair of them tell this tale from his youth, back when he was sent to the funeral of an old lady, to pay his respects on behalf of the firm he works for.

The lights dim further.

There’s a blast of that recorded sound, loud enough the shake the floorboards. Lights flash across the backdrop.

A train, blaring through a station.

I jump. Martha does to. She twists around like a panicked cat and grabs onto my arm.

Boyish screams from the row behind is quickly replaced by embarrassed laughter delivered at a level at least three octaves lower.

Martha detaches herself and whispers an apology as I pat her hand.

I shrug my reply, hoping to convey that I’m totally cool with it all and that I’m a big brave girl, who ain’t afraid of no ghost, and that if my arm can in any way offer comfort over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, then it is at her disposal.

I think she got it.

Someone’s walking down the aisle.

I turn my head slowly, holding on tight to my seat.

It’s a woman. Dressed head to toe in black.

I brace myself, determined not to show fear. I have to be brave. For Martha.

The woman passes, wafting cool air over my cheek.

A second later, she’s gone.

I breathe again. I laugh, feeling silly.

Plus, as an aspiring theatre ghost, I have a reputation to protect. I can’t have the other ghosts laughing at me.

The house lights switch on.

Martha and I look at each other in confusion.

“There’s an interval?” she asks.

I’m surprised too. The whole performance is only two hours.

The boys sitting behind and around us start making their presence known, turning Martha and I into a pair of whack-a-moles as we stand up and sit down and stand up again to let them past.

They’re laughing and pointing at the stage, turning into a bunch of mini-Sid James’ as they make Ooo-err style noises.

I look over to see what has been the cause of this Carry On.

The safety curtain is down. And painted all over it, is an illustration of a woman. Ten feet tall and as blue as a Na'vi. She’s also completely nude, apart from a length of blue cloth wrapped around her hips and a red mask across her face.

I snort.

“I sometimes forget that boys are,” I say to Martha, nodding towards the naked lady.

“Was that what it was?” She laughs.

The mood lightens. The theatre is bright and warm. We are far away from tales of heavily-draped women who hang around in graveyards. There’s nothing to be scared of here.

Our joviality doesn’t last long.

Half way through the second half Martha clamps down on my wrist. Hard.

“God, I’m so sorry,” she whispers. I laugh to show I don’t mind.

But as the yelps from the boys behind us die down and our attention returns to the stage, I give my wrist a quick shake. Martha is hella strong. That girl lifts.

I find myself laughing harder and harder as the play goes on. Snorting as loud sounds and dark figures attempt to do their worst to be.

It’s all for show, and I don’t know who I’m trying to convince. Me. Or Martha.

Oh god. Oh no. There she is. The woman in black. Her face. Oh my god, that face!

Be strong, Max. Be strong. Be strong be strong bestrongbestrongbestrong.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.

The tale ends.

We’re thrown back into the theatre. The actor and the reader drop their characters. The lights are bright. The laughter is back, if a little strained.

But there’s one trick left to play.

“I didn’t see any woman,” says the reader-chappy, after the actor congratulates him for finding such a creature.

The programme bares him out.

“Cast: Arthur Kipps - Stuart Fox [that’s the reader-chappy] / The Actor - Matthew Spencer.”

That’s it.

There’s no mention of a woman in black.

“That’s a great role,” I say to Martha as we gather our things. “The woman in black. Just walking around looking terrifying.”

I wait, needing to hear Martha confirm that she too saw the woman in black.

“Yeah,” she says, but she’s half distracted by her jacket.

Oh dear.

At home I pull out the programme and go through every biography line-by-line, searching for my woman in black.

“Nina Deiana,” it reads. “Vision Productions.”

I smile. She was definitely producing visions for me.

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Chicken Soup for the Sausage Roll

“You can wait here if you like. The house should be opening any minute now.”

I’m the first one there. Which is a good thing, as the foyer space of the Jermyn Street Theatre is only big enough for one. Can it even be classed as a foyer? It’s certainly not intended for lingering. Perhaps the more appropriate word is a landing. And I do feel like I’ve landed there.

“Thanks, it’s awful outside. Hailing.”

The sudden downpour of stinging hail stones is the reason for my early arrival. When it came to deciding between digging an umbrella out of my bag, and just legging the remaining distance to the theatre, I plumped for legging it.

That may have been a mistake.

My legs are now legged out and feeling a touch wobbly. This body was not made to run.

Balancing here, on that landing, I manage to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. From the outside, the Jermyn Street theatre is a slip of a thing - a small slither slide in between a pizzeria and a clothes shop.

But step through the door and you are taken down below the streets of Piccadilly via a sparkling silver stairway.

The honking horns and hard hailstones that fill the thick air above are left behind, and I’m left recovering and slightly out of breath on the landing.

I’d been to the Jermyn Street Theatre (from here on in, the JST) before. But so long ago that I still manage to be shocked by just how titchy tiny wee it is. The box office is a proper little hole in the wall, but when the house is opened I find that the bar is to.

“Drink, ice cream, programme?” asks a lady from behind her small window. “There’s no interval, so now is your opportunity.”

I go for a programme, which turns out to be a proper playtext. I fucking love a playtext.

With the theatre to myself, I can get some proper pictures taken. But with only four rows of seats, this doesn’t take long. And with allocated seating, the rest of the audience is in no rush to turn up.

With a theatre this small, I’d usually expect there to be strings of fairy lights on the walls. Perhaps some cutsie signage pointing to the loos. But there’s none of that. Beyond the silver stairway, the decor is fairly spartan. The JST doesn’t go in for all the hipster aesthetic stuff.

So, I settle in and play my playtext game - finding a line near the end and seeing if I remember it by the time we get there in the show. Not much of a game, but it’s always nice to have something to look forward to during a rubbish performance.

Not that I was worried about that.

I was here on a recommendation. A Twitter recommendation. Which are often terrible, but this one was from someone who knew I’d loved Hundred Words for Snow and wanted to make sure that I knew the writer was currently directing this play. I didn’t. And I was more than grateful for the information.

Even better, the director was in that night.

How do you say hello to someone who broke your heart? On the list of awkward conversation starters it has to be right up there with your STD test results and telling them you ran over your dog.

After a short internal debate, I decided the best course was the simplest: Keep it real. “Hello. I’m Max. You smashed my heart into smithereens. Thank you.”

There. That wasn’t too bad. I didn’t even cry.

And people are starting to arrive now.

“I’m just going to pop to the toilet,” says a man as he walks in.

“Not that one though,” laughs a woman in reply, nodding towards the stage, where there’s a projected sign proclaiming TOILETS over one of the doors.

“Umm…”

“Is it... No!”

Yes! That door marked Toilets leads to the actual toilets and you need to cross the actual stage to get to them.

“The performance will begin in three minutes,” comes a disembodied voice over the tannoy. “The toilets are now closed.”

Sure enough the projected sign dims. The bar’s cubby is shuttered.

 

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A Hundred Words for No

Watching theatre when you’re feeling a bit fragile is a risky business. Especially when the show you’re going to see is about teenage girls and dead dads.

But the siren call of “good writing,” was too much for me. And besides, I was feeling pretty good. The season brochure at work had come back from the printers lucky pretty damn slick if I do say so myself, the blog’s going well (hello!), and the marathon even better. I hit the one-third mark on Wednesday, which considering we aren’t even done with March yet is fucking impressive, isn’t it? I mean, yes, I do have a waiting list of theatres that I need to add to my Official Theatre List that lives on this website, so this victory is pretty short lived. But I was prepared to enjoy it while it lasted.

That was, until I was walking through the West End on my way to the Trafalgar Studios and it happened. You know. That thing when you find that you are no longer walking alone. You have someone walking with you. Keeping step. In a crowd of faceless strangers, one of them has all their attention trained on you.

“Oh god,” he says. “Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. That face. I’ve seen that face before.”

And look, I know it’s part of the female experience and all that. And it was fine in the end. He went away after I gave him a few short words (“Oh gawwwwdddd”) followed by a dismissive roll of the eyes. But still, there’s nothing like getting approached by a creeper on the street for making your skin feel like its suddenly two sizes too small.

I’d planned on popping by the Chinatown Bakery put I didn’t want to hang around. I strode down St Martin’s as fast as I could, clenching and unclenching my hand as I went, as if trying to shake off the memory of him.

Honestly, I’d rather hoped I would have aged out of that demographic by now. This type of thing didn’t happen to me when I was fat…

I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios feeling a little frazzled.

The foyer was rammed as the audiences of two shows fought for dominance.

I could barely make in it through the door. Usually I’d hang back. Let the first show of the evening, the one in Studio One, clear out. But I didn’t want to be outside anymore.

Queues to get out of the foyer crossed with the one at the bar on the other side. Both of them managing to block the box office on the far wall.

Breathing in, I aimed myself at a small gap and squeezed my way through, shooting out the other end like a log at the bottom of a flue ride in a water park.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles.”

The woman on box office nods and reaches for the larger of two boxes.

“It’s for 100 Words,” I add, feeling pretty pleased that I not only managed to remember the name of the show that I had booked that morning, but also could drop a nifty shortened version of it.

She grinned. “Thank you,” she says, grabbing the other box.

Working a single box office with two shows on an evening can’t be fun.

Although I have it on good authority that the Trafalgar Studios is a good place to work front of house. Well, good in comparison to other ATG venues. (“The pay is shit but they treat you nice,” was the exact wording).

Ticket picked up, it was my turn to join the queue to get out of this tiny foyer.

“Just down the stairs,” says the ticket checker when I make it to the doors. “The show is 75 minutes with no interval, so if you need to use the toilets I would suggest going beforehand as we might now be able to let you back in.”

I may still be feeling a little brittle, but even I can cope with sitting quietly in a seat for just over an hour.

I buy a programme while I’m there, and she deftly juggles to two separate show programmes and her money pouch as I exchange a five pound note for a programme and two pounds fifty in change.

Down the stairs, with their ceiling that looks like it’s been hewn from a rock in a fantasy film, and down in the basement, deep under Whitehall. This must have been what Churchill felt like heading down into his war bunkers. Safe, with all the chaos from above left far behind.

The Studio Bar does have a certain war-bunker feel to it, with it’s low ceilings and even lower lighting. The green light that emanates from the bar itself could serve as a makeshift banker’s desk lamp. You know the ones. With the green glass shades and slim brass stand that you always see in films set in the forties.

Even down here though, there isn’t much in the way of space. People lean against the railings next to the loos, and by the steps. But despite the overcrowding, there’s a calm, with just the gentle buzz of chatter.

“One minute left, ladies,” calls one of the female ushers into the women’s loos. “One minute for Admissions.”

I must tell you that Admissions is the play in Studio 1 before you think she was referring to the more bodily kind.

She comes back out and finds a male usher. “Can you quickly run into the men’s?” she asks.

A few seconds later a line of men emerge from their own aborted set of admissions. The women have set to make an appearance.

“Ladies! We are past the call for Admissions,” I hear from inside the women’s loos a few minutes later. Eventually, the audience for Studio One is coddled and wrangled and chivvied into their seats and the bar settles back down, the buzz of chatter now noticeably gentler and the seats now free for the taking.

But there is no time to enjoy that as that now Admissions is up and running, it’s time to get A Hundred Words for Snow warmed up. The house for Studio Two opens and we all dutifully file through the door and down the corridor to the smaller of the two theatres. Very much smaller. Studio Two is an actual studio, with only a hundred seats arranged in three sides around a small stage.

Suddenly, I feolt unsure.

I’d been brave that morning. I’d been feeling good. I told you about the season brochure looking well swish, didn’t I?

I’d been feeling so damn good, and so damn brave, I’d booked for the front row.

The front row, in this tiny, intimate theatre. For a one-woman show.

I didn’t feel all that brave anymore.

As the auditorium lights dimmed, Gemma Barlett came bounding out, all youthful energy and smiles.

She wasn’t the teenage girl I had been, but perhaps she was the teenage girl I had wanted to be. Or at least, had wanted to be friends with. A bit geeky. A bit silly. Charming and brash, but also awkward and self-effacing. And with great hair.

And she was off on an adventure. To the North Pole. With her dead dad tucked away safely in her backpack, following in the footsteps of all those male explorers and carving her own path as she went, all the while paying homage to the father she had loved…

The first tear was easy enough to wipe away. A smooth blink and it was gone.

But when one tear falls, there are bound to be more to follow.

And I was sitting in the front row.

As Gemma Barlett rubbed the dampness from under her eyes, I did the same. A second later she would turn round, all brave smile again, beaming at each of us in turn and all I could think about is… I hope she doesn’t see the tracks of eyeliner smeared across my cheeks.

Dead dads and teenage girls. Gets me every time.

[She bounces around, pressing her back against the seat and the jerking forward. I can feel the bench vibrating under my as her body shakes. She’s willing the show to end. I can feel the desperation pumping out of her. She’s looking around, her head swinging from one side to the other like a bull in the ring. She’s trying to find a way out. But the only exit is on the other side of the stage. There’s no way to get to it without interrupting the performance.

As soon as the lights dim she bolts from her seat, leaving bag and coat behind.]

 

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Divorced, Beheaded, Fried

“Meet you by Agatha Christie?”

I’ve always wanted to be the person who says things like that. Well, ever since I read I Capture the Castle and fell in love with Topaz Mortain when she describes the British Museum as a place where "people do nothing but use it for assignations - I met him there myself once.”

My attempt at my own literary assignation is soon thwarted by Nicki’s look of confusion. “Where is that again?”

“It’s near the noodle shop. If you walk down the road towards Five Guys.”

 “Ah!” She nods. “Next to the crossing. I know where that is.”

Somehow, this was all starting to lose the sense of romance I was going for.

We were going to see Six that night. Something we were both very excited about. So excited, even a battle with the TodayTix app for day seats that morning hadn’t managed to dampen our spirits. In our pursuit of cheap, or at least cheaper tickets, we’d both been poised on our respective phones, to hit that button at 10am on the dot.

But it seems we weren’t the only people who wanted to see this hit show on a random Tuesday evening and were we made to wait while other, luckier, app users made tea, tried to find a date, or otherwise occupied their time, with unbought tickets sitting in their basket.

Eventually, a few single tickets crept back up for sale. I grabbed one. I tried to buy another but the app wasn’t having it. No multiple purchases for a single performance. Even if you only wanted the two tickets.

I ran over to Nicki’s desk. She was on a work call. There was no time for that. I grabbed her mobile and directed her through the medium of waving it in front of her face that she needed to unlock it. She did. App opened, I clicked the checkout button. Success! Single ticket in the basket and only a few seats down from the one I had bought.

After that, it was only a matter of finding somewhere to meet that evening.

Enter Agatha Christie.

Or at least her memorial on the intersection between Cranbourn and Great Newport streets.

Shaped like a massive book, it’s perfect for leaning against and getting in the way of tourists’ photos.

“Shall we get our tickets first?” I asked when Nicki appears at my elbow.

We dart across the road to the Arts Theatre and push our way through the packed bar.

“Is this the queue?” we ask people in general.

A man shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says before turning his back. Guess that’s a no then.

Nicki gets out her phone, but the app isn’t necessary. We are on surname terms here.

Nicki gets her ticket, then the bloke on box office hands one to me.

I frown at it. Right seat number. It has my name on it and everything.

“How…?” I start. “Did you give him my name?” I ask Nicki.

“Of course!” she says, surprised that I hadn’t noticed.

Oh dear.

I stuffed the problematic ticket into my bag.

“Food?”

We went to Five Guys. Might as well.

“Shall we share a milkshake?” asks Nicki as we stand in the queue.

“No!” I exclaim, horrified. I’m a grown woman. I can buy my own damn milkshakes.

“Max, I’m going to force intimacy on you if it’s the last thing I do. We’re sharing a milkshake.”

I opened my mouth, ready to let forth a very articulate refusal that would leave poor Nicki quaking in her shoes, but after one look at her face I shut it again.

We shared a milkshake.

“Shit, it’s five to,” I say, catching a glimpse of my phone.

We scramble for our coats. Nicki puts her leftover fries in her bag. I grab the milkshake.

“Shit, they’ve all gone in,” I say as we reach the Arts. The foyer is completely empty.

A man opening the door quickly steps to one side to let us through, terror in his eyes.

“Thank you!” I shout over my shoulder, as we run across the foyer towards the auditorium entrance. “Can we take this in?” I ask, holding up the milkshake.

“Thank you,” I say at the same time as he says: “Err…”

No time to stop to take photos or even buy a programme. We aimed straight for our seats.

Our separated seats.

Oh. I had forgotten about that.

The man sitting next to me stood up to let Nicki pass.

“Sorry,” I say. “Do you think it would be possible to move down a couple of seats…” I let me request trail off.

“No.”

“Oh.”

I mean, fair does. He was under no obligation to move because some pair of woman, who arrive seconds before curtain up, can’t get their act together enough to buy two seats next to one another.

He grinned. “Only kidding,” he said, moving down a seat.

Well, there we are then. True love reigns supreme. Or at least joint-milkshake ownership.

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Reaching the fourth level

There’s a moment in Home, I’m Darling when Katherine Parkinson’s floofy skirts take up the entirety of a sofa. In order for anyone to sit next to her, they have to coax her petticoats out of the way.

I don’t think I have ever felt so seen in all my years of theatre-going.

I too was having trouble with my skirt. A massive tartan number that could have comfortably cloaked the entirety of William Wallace’s army. I couldn’t seem to cross my legs without getting the toe of my boot caught in the hem, which was making the intricate act of uncrossing and standing up all the more tricky.

As was keeping tabs on all that fabric, which if neglected for a single would take off and work its way into the hinges of the flip-down theatre seat from where it had to be coaxed back out with all the patient tenderness of a fireman freeing a fat rat from a manhole cover.

And when it wasn’t on a death wish, it was making intimate acquaintance with my neighbour’s knees.

You might well be thinking that I probably didn’t need to wear a skirt that I already know to be problematic to the theatre. One might even go so far as to say that I shouldn’t wear it at all. But the lure of theme dressing was too great, and after seeing those gorgeous posters of Katherine Parkinson in her pinny, dotted all over London, there was no way I was missing out on the opportunity to play dress up.

Now, I do love me some fifties, but all that pastel perfection isn’t very… well, Goth, is it? So while big skirts are in, the palette was more Alexander McQueen than Her Maj, the Queen. And my biggest, stompiest boots were subbed in for the required heels.

Boots that insisted on getting stuck in my damn skirt every time I crossed my legs.

I really need to get that thing hemmed.

It’s that or pray to the theatre gods for my legs to have a late onset growth spurt.

Anyway, my boots freed from the tyranny of my skirt, I picked my way over to the front of the Royal Circle in order to get some of my patented dodgy dome photos. I do like taking pictures of the ceilings of these old West End houses. They are always so fantastically over the top.

"Just so you know, we don't allow pictures of the stage," said a voice from behind me. I wobbled dangerously on the step as I attempted to turn around. It was an usher, wearing one of those little ATG waistcoats that makes them look like old-timey train conductors. "But if you want to take pictures of the theatre..."

"I'm purely about the theatre," I assured her.

I neglected to mention that I had already got all the photos of the stage that I wanted while still trapped in my seat. As had everyone else in the audience.

But, out of deference to her efforts. I won't post them. I'm just going to hoard them for myself. Those photos are mine! All mine!

The Duke of York's is a handsome old theatre. Lots of gold and twirly bits. But to be honest, I'm starting to get a bit bored of these Edwardian West End Theatres. They've all begun to merge into one another. It doesn't help that they're pretty much all owned by one of three companies: the aforementioned ATG, which owns the Duke of York's along with the Ambassadors, the Pinter, the Phoenix, Fortune, the Savoy, the Playhouse, the Lyceum, and technically the Donmar (the building at least, but we don't like to talk about that), Lloyd Webber's company (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Cambridge, Adelphi and the Palladium, Her Majesty's, and the Gillian Lynne) and of course, Delfont Mackintosh (the Novello, the Gielgud, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, Queens, Victoria Palace, Noel Coward and the Wyndham's). Visiting these theatres, being greeted at the door by front of housers dressed in identical uniforms, being handed identically branded tickets, seeing the same red seats and gilt walls, going to the bar and getting deja vu at the sight of the chairs upholstered in mushroom coloured velvet and walls cluttered with ornate mirrors.

In the interval, I went in search of some architectural interest.

The Royal Circle at the Duke of York's is on the ground floor, so the bar in the foyer. It basically is the foyer.

I dismissed that and headed upstairs.

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