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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Who Ate all the Pies

23 January.

Picture me, at my work, checking the ole ‘gram during my lunchbreak. It’s National Pie Day, and I’m busy rolling my eyes about these made-up days while at the same time wishing I had a pie for lunch instead of my bagel, when a post caught my eye. A post featuring the picture of a pie.

A post feature the picture of a petite pie, even.

It’s in a glass jar. A very small looking glass jar (a pint-sized potted pie picture post?). But with enough whipped cream to deflate even the most exuberate Saturday morning kids’ TV host.

“Sweet news!” read the occunying post. “We will be offering a delicious selection of our famous pie jars at performances of #WaitressLondon...” yadda yadda yadda. I had already stopped reading. I was too busy scuttling across the office to show the picture to my colleague Nicki.

“We’re going, right?” I said, as if that was even a question that needed to be asked.

We were definitely going.

At first we tried to get tickets to the open dress rehearsal, but when that didn’t work out, we decided that we were willing to buy actual tickets. With money.

“Where do you want to sit?” asked Nicki, seat plan prepped and open on her computer.

“Somewhere cheap. We want to save money for pie.”

“True.”

“I mean, pie is ninety percent of the reason I’m going.”

“Pie?!”

Our pie chat had managed to attract the attention of Martha. Not content with our upcoming Les Mis trip, she wanted in on the pie-action too.

Looks like we were having a group-outing then! I just hoped the Adelphi were ready for us.

Turns out though, when the day came round, we weren’t ready for us.

Martha was unwell, and the prospect of a West End musical with added sugar overdose was making her feel queasy. 

Sucks. 

Plus, we now had a spare tickets. 

Double sucks .

Just to demonstrate the levels of our popularity, it took the entirety of our afternoons for me and Nicki to find someone to take that ticket. And yeah, it was Nicki who succeeded in bringing in our ringer pie-eater. But that’s neither here nor there. I mean, yes - she’s younger, cooler, and has a better knowledge of Chinatown eateries than me. But I’m still great company, and frankly I’m deeply offended by all those people who claimed to have ‘other plans’ when I asked them.

It was a Monday night.

No one has plans on a Monday night.

Well, except me and Nicki. And now… Kate.

Nicki wasted no time in telling Kate all about the marathon when we all met up at Cambridge Circus.

“You’ve been to 58 theatres? Since the beginning of January?” exclaimed Kate, doing her very best to keep the panic from her eyes.

“This will be number 59,” I admitted. It does rather sound a lot when you say it like that.

Thankfully, but the time we’d reached this conclusion we were already at our first stop of the evening: Bun House, in Chinatown.

“Right, we need the custard ones,” started Nicki as we joined the queue. “Do we want savoury? I think we need savoury if we're having custard. You like spicy don’t you? Have about three custard, two chicken, two lamb, and two beef. That’s equal, isn’t it?”

It was.

And if you are ever out with Nicki, I highly recommend letting her take charge of the ordering. That girl knows her shit. The bao buns were pillowy soft. The lamb was just the right amount of spicy. The chicken was pure pate goodness and the custard…

“Did you see the sign?” said Kate after filling up her water bottle. “They have a squirty guarantee.”

Read More

Foyled again

New crushes are so exciting. The sweaty palms. The distracting daydreams. The thumping heart. The papercuts as you riffle through their playtexts…

You know you have a writer crush bad when you use your precious pre-show minutes to rush over to Foyles in order to stare at their words.

After my Cyprus Avenue-dissection with Helen on Wednesday devolved into a doughnut-based intervention, I was left confused.

Helen had no recollection of the Tom Cruise incident from watching it in 2016.

And I had no memory of, well, let’s say the use of a particular, very strong, word, from watching it on Monday.

This needed further investigation.

And thankfully, Foyles, with its generous theatre department, was just across the road from last night’s theatrical destination.

Even better, they had the original edition of the playtext. The 2016 version. Complete with very strong word.

I snapped a picture and sent it to Helen.

“Thank god I wasn’t imagining it,” came the reply.

Job done.

Not wanting to put down David Ireland’s words just yet, I wandered around, examining all the lovely plays.

By 7pm I still wasn’t really to let go, so I was forced to buy it.

That’s how they get you, these writers. With their tricksy ways. Writing good shit that you then want to read. Damn them all, I say.

I left before I had the chance to discover any more potential writer-crushes sitting on the shelves.

Probably for the best, as by the time I made my way back over the road, there was a massive queue snacking out of the box office and right down Phoenix Street.

Read More

The worst theatre companion in London

"I was going to stand across the street and yell 'Soup' at you," were Weez's first words after bounding up to me outside the Noel Coward theatre.

It may surprise you to learn that this isn't the first time I've heard that.

I haven't gone by Soup in years, but that's the thing with people you first met on the Twitter. Old habits die hard. And old usernames die harder.

Which is why I should probably start called Weez Janet. Because that's her name.

"I bought something on the way over," continued Weez, I mean Janet, bringing out a small card box.

"What is that?" I asked as a small golden pastry emerged.

"Pastel de Nata. Want one?"

Holy shit balls, yes. I really did.

The box containing the remaining pastry duly handed over, we headed inside.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I had already collected the tickets. I was going to be such a good theatre companion that night. Attentive. Charming. Erudite...

"I need to buy a programme," I suddenly announced in the foyer. Shit.

Well, okay. I could be attentive, charming, and erudite a little bit later. Once all the marathon-relayed housekeeping was out of the way, I'd be able to relax, I told myself. Then all the amusing anecdotes that I was sure I definitely had, would present themselves to me. Something witty about Ivo Van Hove. Or a pun on the title of the play… I couldn’t think of one (and still can’t…) but it was only a matter of time.

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"That's £4.50," said the programme seller. I stared at her. Then at the notes in my hand.

"It's the green one," whispered Janet.

Ah. Yes. The green one. 

I handed it over.

"I'm so used to programmes being five pounds," I explained to Janet as we made our way upstairs. "Her asking for not five pounds kinda threw me."

"That whole fifty pence..."

"I couldn't work out if it was more or less. I literally don't have enough brain space for that kind of maths anymore."

Clearly erudite wasn't on the cards for that evening.

Instead we headed to the bar.

"Actually I need the loo," said Janet.

"Okay, you do that and I'll find a spot for us here," I said, turning a circle in the packed bar and seeing a complete lack of spots.

Seats in the bar were not a thing that was accessible that evening.

Loos weren't either, it seemed.

"The door is blocked by two blokes," said Janet returning a moment later. "But there is a ladies down off the foyer."

We retreated back to the foyer.

Oh god, look what a monster this marathon has turned me into... commenting on the most human of needs of my theatre companions.

I even felt duty bound to ask Janet about the facilities as soon as she emerged.

"Nice? Clean?" I asked, already hating myself.

They were both those things.

"But what about the window looking out onto the street?"

Through the door I had spotted the arched windows that lurked behind the row of sinks. Covered by a thin sheet, there was at least the suggestion of privacy. But still, that's not what you want when you're washing your hands.

Our trip to the toilets now complete, I realised that being charming was off the cards too.

I had better bloody be attentive then.

"Sorry," I apologised, struggling with my phone once we'd found our seats up in the balcony. "I just need to finish proofing my post."

Ah. So not attentive then either.

I was officially the worst theatre companion in London.

Bollocks.

Janet is very forgiving though.

She even used the time to catch up on my posts.

I really don't deserve her.

"Right, done," I announced, having finally managed to post the damn thing, and even tweet a link to it.

Janet was done too, so we were finally able to concentrate on the important things. Like the decor.

"I like the balcony. You get a great views of those... things," she said, indicating the reclining naked ladies and fat babies that framed the stage.

"I like that one," I said, pointing at the most blatant of the naked babies. "Abs and fat. He's got the full package."

"And a trumpet," added Janet. "Where did he get that from?"

"What about those two?" I said, pouting at the Wedgwood-blue cameos placed either side of the stage. A man and a woman, very much not facing each other. "Who are they?"

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Shall we look at the programme?" suggested Janet.

Sometimes I forget that programmes are things to be looked at, and not just collected.

Programme duly brought out, we found the timeline. It started in 1903. Which wasn't particularly promising. These were not Edwardian-looking faces.

"They look late 17th, early 18th century to me," was Janet's opinion.

I agreed. The bloke had definite big-wig hair going on. (All about WEAVE! Holy shit. Thank god for that. You can stand down now, my friend. We got there in the end).

But I have to say, even given the benefit of 24 hours before writing this post. I still don't know the answer.

The Wikipedia page dedicated to the theatre was less than helpful.

It's as if theatre-goers aren’t interested in the minutiae of theatre interior decor, which makes no sense at all.

With a bang, the lights went out.

The curtain rose.

Darkness was replaced by... I don't even know. What is that colour? Not red. Not pink. Not purple.

Wild salmon, perhaps. 

Walls and bed-sheets and curtains and carpet and tiles and dresses and coats, all in that strange, queasy colour.

Then I realised what it was. It was the colour we were never meant to see. The colour of our insides. The chamber of a beating heart. A sliced through kidney. A length of intestine so fresh it's still digesting something...

That reminded me.

"I forgot to eat the thing!" I said as we emerged out onto a side street outside the theatre.

The pastel de nata was still in my bag.

Not for long though.

I ate it on the tube home.

Yum.

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You spin me right round, baby, right round

"I'm so excited for tonight," messaged my colleague to me before she'd even got into the office that morning.

Martha and I were going to see Les Mis together that evening, and Martha was pumped.

Martha loves Les Mis. She’d seen it twice.

I like Les Mis too. But it’s hard to feel excited about going to see a show when you literally go and see one every damn night. I've been to the theatre 47 times this year. Forty-seven. That's one per day with two extra for luck.

So, it's hard to get enthused about yet another musical. Especially one that you’ve seen before. Even if the before was… fuck… seventeen years ago.

For me, going to Les Mis felt like just another check mark against my masterlist of London theatres.

And a long-winded one at that. Have you heard what the running time on this show is? It’s three hours.

That’s a full half-hour longer than the majority of West End shows. And over an hour longer than Come From Away, the 9/11 musical currently playing at the Phoenix.

As check marks go, this one was going to take a long time to draw. And considering how low on ink I am generally at the moment (have I told you how ill I am recently? Because I’m really sick, you know) it was unsurprising that I was less than excited about the whole thing.

“Shall we go out for dinner?” said Martha, bouncing over to my desk that afternoon.

God yes.

Food was going to be an absolute necessity.

“Leon?”

There’s a Leon directly opposite the Queen’s Theatre. There’s even a crossing right there. Getting from one to the other can be achieved with little more than a stumble if you time it with the traffic lights.

Perfect. “Perfect,” I said.

And it was perfect. After a leisurely stroll into the West End, we ordered far too much food and scoffed the lot. It’s amazing how much your mood can improve after eating a burger and a portion of chicken nuggets in a single sitting - some people get endorphins from exercise. Personally, my neurotransmitters start firing after a hefty dose of Korean mayo.  

“At least we don’t have to go far,” I said as we struggled up the stairs.

On reflection, basement seating had been a bad idea.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only mountain we had to climb.

“Is that the queue?” I exclaimed in horror as we crossed the road.

The packed foyer of the Queen’s Theatre was spilling out across the pavement, blocking the doors, the signs, and any indication of where we were supposed to go.

Picking a door at random, we joined the queue. Only to be turned away by our lack of tickets.

“Aww,” said the ticket-checker on the door with a tilt of her head. “And you’ve queued all that time,” she sympathetically cooed.

So back outside we went, took two steps to the right, and joined the next queue. Attempted to, anyway. As it was impossible to tell where the queue was, or even how many there were. Did each ticket desk have its own, or were they sharing?

This is when it pays to be going with a plus one.

“Let’s split up,” I suggested. But Martha was way ahead of me. Literally. Her chosen queue was miles ahead. “Give them my surname!” I called after her.

She rightly gave me a look to indicate that she knew how to pick up a damn ticket, and didn’t need instruction from the likes of me.

A few seconds later, she was back to rescue me from my unmoving queue.

“Got them?” I asked redundantly.

“Yeah!” she said, waving them. “I enjoyed being Maxine Smiles.”

“Did you? Did she comment on it?”

“Yeah. I got a ‘Smiles!’” she said, lifting her voice in mock-surprise at the name.

I gave her a smile of my own. And not just because of the delight my surname brings, but also because I now had a witness to said delight.

We headed back to the original door, and this time managed to gain entry, and for the first time in my marathon, had a yellow security tag threaded through the handles of my bag.

“I have to buy a programme,” I apologised. This was quickly followed up by apologies for stopping to take photos of the corridor, the ceiling, the auditorium, and the aforementioned programme.

I’ve really become a pain-in-the-arse to go to the theatre with since starting this marathon.

“I need to go take photos,” has now became my general interval refrain.

“Well, I need to go to the loo,” was Martha’s retort.

After wandering around and eventually having to ask an usher as to whereabouts of the lady’s conveniences, we eventually located them down at stalls level.

“You should really write about how bad the loos are for women,” said Martha when she eventually emerged.

She’s not the first one to suggest it. I’ve even been asked to write about specific loos (“The ones at the Royal Opera House are so fancy,” commented a different co-worker, prior to my trip there. “You should review them”), but unfortunately for toilet-kind, I’m not a great theatre-micturater. But I promise you now, if and whenever I use them - I’ll give you my two cents on spending a penny.

For now however, I’ll be talking about the light features.

“Hey, look - it changes colour!” I cried out, immediately getting out my camera to video the shades shifting above our heads.

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As I stood there, in the middle of the foyer, filming to pretty coloured lights, an usher ducked down low to avoid getting in the way and ruining my shot.

A selfless act from someone keen to do their bit to enhance the experience that is: Les Misérables.

Between you and me (and I swear to the theatre gods, if you repeat any of this I’ll cut you) it is quite the experience. Even for a jaded old hag like me.

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From the huge wall of sound that is One Day More (“such an interval song,” was what I said to Martha as the lights rose. Literally nothing but an ice-cream break could have followed that), to the hottie to the waistcoat with a ponytail (character name forgotten, but you know who I mean), to the shocked giggle that sweeps the audience as Cosette changes race half way through act one, to the watery-eye inducing Bring Him Home (it’s my cold… I told you this already), to the mental exhaustion that is three hours of epic, fast moving, emotionally exerting, theatre that sent me right off to sleep as soon as head connected with pillow that night.

And the revolve.

Oh, man, the revolve.

This may well be the Korean mayo talking here, but can anything match the heartbreak of watching the barricades turn slowly round and revealing the events of the other side?

I’m not sure I have the energy to join the campaign to keep the ill-fated revolve right now, but you kids of the revolvution - I salute you. You are doing the theatre gods work. Down with the municipal guard! Down with confused queuing systems! Down with projections!

Martha may have stepped out humming One Day More, but I came out ready to start a revolution. 

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure

It occurred to me, while sitting up in the balcony of Her Majesty’s Theatre, that Phantom of the Opera was the first West End show I ever saw. My brother had taken us all out for our mum’s birthday. I remember cringing down in my seat, overwhelmed by embarrassment as the cast started to… sing. Ergh! Were they really going to do that all the way through?

I was about eight years old. And Phantom was too, as we both premiered in the same year.

And look at the pair of us now! How far we’ve both come.

Growing together. Learning together.

I’ve dropped in to check in on my theatrical-sibling a couple of times over the years. See how he was doing. As the (slightly…) elder of the two I thought it was my responsibility, as a big sister, you know.

Okay. I went once. When I was at university. Which, if your maths has been keeping up, you will know was a very, very long time ago.

I’m a terrible sister.

And as I don’t want to let our relationship deteriorate ant further, I came to the conclusion last night, while sitting up there in the cheap seats (a tenner on GILT donchaknow), that if I really was going to die during the marathon, then it was going to be on that night. At Her Majesty’s.

It just seemed right.

Not only because of my great kinship with the show. But also because, if I did manage to come back to haunt the theatre, I would then become The Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera. And if that isn’t a title worth dying for, I don’t know what is.

This was destiny knocking, and I was waiting by the door ready to go.

The usher posted on the balcony that night seemed to agree.

“I'll be looking after you in the balcony tonight,” he said, positioning himself at the front of the tier for his introductory speech. “Right now, take as many photos as you like. But once the show starts, no photography is allowed. If I see you, and your screen will betray you, I will embarrass you.”

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Yeah, okay mate. But one can’t die of embarrassment. Believe me, I’ve tried.

“During the interval,” he continued, his voice ricocheting off the ceiling. “For health and safety please don't congregate on the stairs as you may fall.”

Ah. That’s the stuff. That’s how it was going to happen. That’s how my marathon was going to end.

“The rake here is very steep, so don't lean forward,” he went on. I expected some dire warning about tripping and plunging head first into the stalls, but he merely followed up with an explanation that leaning forward blocks the view of the people sitting behind. Which is also good. I suppose.

“I'll shut up now,” he finished before taking up post at the wooden podium behind us, from which he could watch us all. Master of all he surveyed. A god up in the gods.

He was as good as his word.

“No photos in the auditorium,” he boomed during the interval. “I can see what your screens are doing.”

Obviously I instantly took my phone out and attempted to snap a shot.

Pointed down. Aimed at my knee.

I’m a rebel, not a tosser.

But obviously my phone crapped out and the image didn’t save, so you’ll just accept my confession without proof.

Devoid of a functional phone, I had to find other ways to secure my demise.

The door to the balcony was promising. Looking for all the world like it had been bought at the prison-closure sale, it held distinct possibilities.

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Seemingly made of metal, this door could do some serious damage if I could find someone to smash it into me, accidently or otherwise.

But there was no one about.

I moved on in search of other methods of extinction.

A little way down the stairs there was the strange case of cubby-hole 98. I don’t know what secrets the preceding 97 doors held, but I was sure that number 98 contained something fantastically dark and hopefully dangerous.

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I gave the handle a tentative tug.

Locked.

Whatever was in there, wasn’t getting out.

What else? What else? What else?

Choke on an ice-cream spoon?

Crash into the scale-replica of the theatre built of Lego that I found in the Grand Circle bar?

Hand over my debit card to the lady on the merchandise counter and tell her to keep on going until the inevitable heart attack?

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Somehow these ideas managed to lack both the dignity and theatricality that I was after.

I didn’t want the other theatre ghosts to laugh at me, after all.

How could I hold my floating head high in front of William Terriss, who was stabbed to death by a fellow actor at the Adelphi stage door and now haunts the theatre? Or Charles Macklin, famed ghost of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, who was the one who did the stabbing, puncturing the eye of his co-star with a cane while they argued over a wig (no one says what happened to the spirit of the stabbed man. Presumably he wasn’t that fussed about the wig after all, and has moved onto a realm where wigs are no longer a concern)?

If I met my end by way swallowing an ice-cream spoon, I would be the laughing stock of the annual theatre ghost convention, an event which, if it isn’t already a thing, I will institute as soon as I am within the theatre ghost ranks.

No, if I was going to go, it had to be impressive. A story worth telling at parties.

I ran through a few options as I watched the second act. I could have made a flying leap for the chandelier, but that had already had its crashing moment before the interval. Or I could have strung myself up with the Punjab lasso. That one fulfilled all the criteria - it would fit in with the show. I could organise some grand, on stage reveal - tears of shock and screams of horror would be bound to follow my discovery. There was one problem. The lasso is an invention of Gaston Leroux and is not a thing that actually exists. And while the show does have one that appears on stage, I’m not entirely sure how functional it is.

I was running out of ideas. Just as I was considering breaking into the cleaning cupboard and seeing what options lay within, the final notes were echoing up from the pit.

It was all over.

After stumbling my way down all the steps, drunk on tunes and eighties perms, I made it outside - safe and somewhat-sound.

And I realised that it was probably for the best that I didn’t die at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Phantom is going to outlive me whatever I do. And while I love my masked brother dearly, and would like to visit him more often. I’m not sure moving in is the best thing for our relationship right now.

Put the kettle on, love

Lord preserve me from going to the West End on a weekend.

With its hoards rampaging through Leicester Square tube station, disgorging themselves out onto Cranbourn Street and cluttering up the pavement with their... you know... presence.

They were everywhere. A gaggle of pink-hatted girls surrounded the Gillian Lynne Theatre. From a distance they looked like they were on their way to a protest, but as I got closer I realised the only thing these kids were demonstrating was a lack of spacial awareness, as they had to be corralled into one corner to allow other people through. 

"Get your tickets out and your bags ready for inspection," became the battle cry of the ushers.

Folded up pieces of A4 flapped in the breeze as everyone brought out their printed-at-home print-at-home tickets.

I didn't yet have my ticket. I was relying on the Gillian Lynne box office to print it for me.

I explained the situation to the nearest usher.

"You can go through, but I'll still need to check you bag though."

Well, naturally.

I opened it for him.

The corner of his lips twitched. "Right then," he said, after the merest fraction of a pause before waving me through.

In the safety of the foyer I peered into my own bag, wondering what it was that had caused his slick manner to stumble.

Sitting on top of the deep heap of items that I felt the need to drag with me everywhere, there was a massive bag of tea. Tetley. 240 teabags.

Ah.

Now, here's the thing: we had run out at home. And it was a Sunday. The shops would be shut by the time I got out of the theatre.

In those circumstances, carrying around a great big bag of tea is totally reasonable, right? And if your list of things-that-need-to-get-done involve going to the theatre, while said bag of tea is on your person... well, so be it.

I don't know why I'm explaining this all to you. You've hefted around worse.

I've seen the table of shame at the Coli. I known what you weirdos get confiscated trying to get into the theatre... never a bag of Tetley though, I must admit. Perhaps the bag-checkers at the Coli have a more relaxed take on teabags.

I should test this out. If I can get them in, I might do a roaring trade undercutting the bar prices. Just need to find out a way of sneaking in a kettle and fortunes will be mine for the making.

Anyway, enough of that. I got in, with the tea, picked up my ticket, and headed for the escalator.

Even having bumbled up and down the twin-pair at the ROH hundreds of times over the years, the presence of an escalator in a theatre still manages to make me feel like I have taken a wrong turn and ended up in Brent Cross.

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Although, given the brutalist concrete aesthetic the Gillian Lynne has going on, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt like I ended up in the Brent Cross car park. I'll give the Gillian Lynne this though, it's easier to navigate than the usual multi-storey.

The seats are more comfortable too.

I've never sat up in the balcony, but as far as I can tell, there simply isn't such a thing as a bad view in this theatre.

I was off to the far right (geographically-speaking...) and didn't miss a thing. If anything, I benefited from glimpses of those things that are usually hidden to those in the more prime locations - such as the screens bolted to the front of the balcony.

"That's the director," said a small child to the even smaller child sitting next to him. Small child pointed authoritatively at one of the screens showing the live feed of the conductor. The smaller child must have demonstrated some level of incredulity because small child was soon backtracking. "He works for the show anyway."

Despite this stumble, small child was clearly a practised theatre-goer, because as soon as the lights rose for the interval he was ready with his demands. "Can I get an ice cream?"

His mum ummed and ah he'd while he begged and pleaded. Things weren't looking good on the ice-cream front.

Thankfully the interval was saved by the magnanimous presence of dad. "Of course you can," he declared. "What else is there to look forward to at the theatre?"

Well, quiet.

The two boys ran off to join the impossibly long ice-cream queue. I stayed in my seat during to interval. Worn out, worn down, and quite frankly, just plain warm. I curled up and allowed the sound of childish chatter to wash over me, soothed by the scent of Haagan Daaz being rubbed into the seats by sticky fingers.

I began to suspect that the over-heating of the auditorium might be a ploy to increase ice-cream sales. The theatrical equivalent of a pub offering salted peanuts.

But I wasn't complaining. I was too sleepy to complain.

So sleepy that it took me a while to notice the jostling presence of someone trying to clamber over my knees.

The boys had returned with their School of Rock branded ice creams.

Nice touch.

I almost wanted to get one for myself then, but I had already decided that the School of Rock official drumsticks would be my purchase of choice if I were to allow my self to buy anything at the theatre. I mean... to get something other than the programme, of course. Programmes don't count as a purchase. They're an essential. Like loo roll and hobnobs.

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I will say that School of Rock is an excellent show to see if you have a cold. The music is so loud that if you can time things properly, a cough will be lost in the raging Stick it to the Man atmosphere.

I can even forgive them for making me clap in time with the finale. I was doing quite well until they busted out the aria from The Magic Flute, at which point I totally lost the rhythm and ended up just flapping my hands about in shame.

Still, the atmosphere is infectious. Even the Grown-Up Band (written in title case as that's how they are referred to in the programme) put down their instruments in order to rock out to the kids' playing.

As we all filed out, more than one parent caused permanent psychological damage to their offspring by humming a few of the tunes.

As for me, I never hum.

Except in the privacy of my own home. With the kettle’s whistling to cover my shame.

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Got Pinter?

I don’t want to do this anymore.

Yeah, I know. Quite the statement to be making after I was raving about the amazing experience I had at the London Library only yesterday. I’d left bouncing and full of the joys of winter.

How quickly exuberance can dissipate when you are having a bad day.

It’s not just a bad day though.

I’m tired. And sick. And poor. And fed up.

And I really don’t want to do this anymore.

As I walked into the West End last night, I could feel my knees clicking and slipping out beneath me, unable or unwilling to support my weight. My arms crossed, my shoulders hunched, coughing into my scarf all the way down to Leicester Square.

And as I walked, I argued with the small, but very loud, voice in my head. The voice that has been the constant companion since starting this marathon. The voice that only has a single thing to say. A single, very pointed question: what the fuck are you going to write about for this one?

The Groundhog Day loop of theatre-going I can cope with. Bad plays don’t frighten me. The spreadsheets and planning soothe my soul. I can survive late nights and lack of sleep if there’s a hot cup of tea waiting for me on the other end.

But the prospect of the blank page in the morning…

That’s terrifying.

And 39 days in, it hasn’t got any easier.

The thought of that white screen hounds me, crashing against my legs like an overexcited puppy as I walk, tripping over my heels wherever I go.

You’d think it be easy. I thought it would be easy.

Just go to the theatre, and then write about it.

It’s not like I don’t know what happens. I am there after all. Experiencing it.

But then I’d have 251 blog posts following the same Got Plot format: Got there. Got complimented on my name. Got my ticket. Got a programme. Got through the show. Got the tube home.

251 blog posts. Each between 1,000 and 1,500 words. That’s over a third-of-a-million words.

And let me tell you, the only Got Plot worth 300,000 words has already been written by G. R. R. Martin.

I mean, look at this shit. I’m doing Game of Throne puns now. That’s how low I’ve sunk. This is worse than the sofa reviews from a few days back.

I do like a good sofa though…

It was while I turning this all over, somewhere along Kingsway, that I remembered.

There would be no sofas for me that night. No sitting down at all.

Due to a combination of last minute purchasing and limited funds, I had bought myself a standing ticket.

Like a total fucking idiot.

My knees almost buckled out from under me at the thought.

Standing. For an entire evening. An evening of Pinter at that.

Ah yes. I was off to catch the final Pinter at the Pinter production: Pinter Seven. At the Harold Pinter Theatre. Naturally.

I’m not the biggest Pinter fan in the world, so you would have thought that piling on all of that Pinter might have given me pause (sorry), but hey - it’s all about the content, innit.

There was a massive queue at the theatre to pick up the tickets, with the collection desk pulled out into the foyer rather than sealed off behind the box office windows.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have it,” said the harried woman on the desk to one person after the other. “Please go to the box office and they’ll sort it.” She waved them in the right direction before turning to me. “Name?”

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so visibly relieved to pull a ticket out of a box.

Ticket in hand, I turned to the next item on my Got agenda: the programme.

I couldn’t see any for sale at the bar, so I followed the line of Pinter posters up the stairs towards the Royal Circle.

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“Is that a proper programme,” a man was asking the young woman on the door. ”Because last time I was here you were selling a one pound thingy.”

“It's a proper, five pound, programme,” she said, as I lurked. This was intel I wanted to know too.

“Good. But it isn't for the whole season is it?” he asked suspiciously. I found myself nodding along. This man was asking all the important questions here.

“Not this one, but I do have a book which covers all the plays,” she said, yanking a heavy looking volume from her Pinter at the Pinter printed pouch.

“I already have that,” he said, a little disgruntled now. “I wanted a proper programme.”

“This is a proper programme,” she said, showing him the original item.

He seemed satisfied with that, and wandered off to his seat before I was able to propose to the man who is clearly my soul mate.

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I had to settle on purchasing my own proper Pinter programme.

“Is this the standing room?” I asked, indicating the long bar behind the seats.

It was.

It took me exactly two attempts at walking the line looking for my place before I realised there were no places. The number printed on my ticket corresponded to exactly nothing.

I could stand anywhere.

After walking down the row one more time, I picked a spot behind a pillar. Restricted view. No one else would want that. I might get a bit of room to myself.

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“Standing?” asked the usher as the lights began to dim. I nodded and she asked with a thumbs up.

She moved onto my neighbour. “Standing?”

“Are we in the right place?” came the reply, with an apologetic display of his ticket.

“There's no order,” she cried, throwing up her arms in mock despair. “It's all chaos here.”

As the first act started, I leant against the bar and rested my head in my hands, and closed my eyes. Just for a moment.

When the interval finally rolled around, I relinquished my coat and shawl to the universe and rushed into the bar, grabbing the nearest seat. 

God, I felt weak.

But if anything, sitting down was making it worse. My body had seized on the opportunity to relax and was taking full advantage. It was utterly intent on sinking into itself. I felt myself slipping down the chair, like a doll incapable of sitting up without the assistance of a pair childish hands continuously jab and poke its limbs into submission.

If I wasn’t careful, the bar staff were going to find me lolling on the floor at the end of the night, and I’d get swept away with the crumbs.

But I couldn’t help myself. I sank down still further.

I wanted to close my eyes and lean my forehead against something cool. A nice marble slab. The Pinter theatre has a distinct lack of nice marble slabs.

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Too soon the bell went for the second act. I heaved myself back to my feet and returned to my spot to rescue my coat and shawl - thankfully both unharmed by after their feckless abandonment.

Sitting a few rows ahead, a woman unfolded a show poster, flipping it over to read the biographies on the back. Was this the mysterious one pound Pinter programme? I wanted to ask where she had got it, but just standing there was taking every mental and physical resource I had at my disposal.

As the audience made their final trips to the loo, I clung onto the bar, trying to avoid the large bags and sharp elbows of those passing by.

Being elbowed in the back by people still drying their hands has to be a particular low point in my life.

But at least that’s another post done.

Another 1,300 words written.

Another theatre crossed off my list.

Gotta catch em all.

Murder Most Fowl

Finally.

After leaving the office last night I walked the route I’d done a hundred times before, crossing roads and taking shortcuts without any form of conscious thought, as if I was being called home by the mothership.

The time had come.

One month and five days into my marathon, I was heading to the Royal Opera House. For an Ashton. With Pigeons. And Vadim. It doesn’t get much better.

But while the ROH may have served as my spinster-pad for a good may years, it’s now a slightly different Opera House to the one I was used to.

I’ve seen the refurbishment before - I went to a shit tonne of Bayadère’s last year - but not enough to fully get used to it, or the weird door numbers. Golden arrows, pointed in every direction, with a crossword of letter-number combinations listed beneath: 4B 4E 5B 5C 5D 5E 5F 6F - you sunk my battleship!

A post-refurbishment walk-through of the Royal Opera House left me blinking and dazed.

I still can't get over how, well... literal they were with the whole Open Up thing.

Gone are the low ceilings, dim corridors and trunk-like pillars.

Everything was so shiny and bright, all draped in beige upholstery and lined with acres of stripy wood. I almost had to shield my eyes against the glare radiating off of the glass costume display cases.

I looked around for hidden ring lights and realised the entire ceiling is a honeycomb of illumination.

This is not just an opera house. This is a champagne tinted, Instagram filtered, pan-seared opera house.

I felt like I walking through heaven. In that I had a nagging sense that wasn't supposed to be there.

I had arrived far too early. The house was still closed. I looked around for somewhere to sit.

The bars were packed with long family-style tables. Up on the terrace, the old groupings of comfortable seating had been replaced by long rows of bar stools.

It seems Open Up wasn’t just for the building. It applied to the audience members too.

Sharing tables. Talking. Communicating.

No thanks.

I fled. It was too much. Too open. Too exposed. Too vulnerable-making.

I needed somewhere quiet, away from the crash of cutlery and cacophony of chatter echoing off the cold floor.

I needed old-fashioned opera house vibes. Preferably with the insulating properties of squashy velvet and wood-paneling.

In other words, I needed the type of place where you can plot a murder in peace.

Not a particular murder, you understand. Just murder in general.

I find it a very soothing occupation.

A tiny bit of control in a chaotic world.

I consider it part of my self-care practices.

Don’t look at me like that. Don’t for a second pretend that you’ve never weighed up the various benefits of cyanide over arsenic (cyanide would go great in a Bakewell tart, I’ve always thought), or dreamt up an elaborate scheme involving a transatlantic crossing, a box of chocolates, and a purple helium balloon.

 Yeah, alright. You keep telling yourself that.

Thankfully, not all of the opera house got the community-friendly treatment. There are still some areas of the building that have retained their romance. Dark places. Secret places. Places where one can properly plan the ultimate, undetectable murder.

So here it is. My list.

The top five places in the Royal Opera House to plan a murder

The Secret Sofa

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Tucked away down the wrong corridor on the upper slips level (go in the opposite direction to those suggested by any gold arrows you encounter) is this glorious little sofa, surrounded by vintage ballet dancers hung at just the right level to whisper sweet-tortures in your ear.

A little brightly lit for my taste (it’s round the corner from a fire refuge point) but you might need that if you go in for the more complex style of plotting that requires blueprints and chemical formulae.

The Slightly Less Secret Sofa

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Found on-route to the lower slips (or the lower amphitheatre if you are that sort of person), this is another red velvet wonder. What it lacks in privacy, it gains from the shadowy lighting and dark walled surroundings.

This is where I do my best country-house conspiracies. Proper Poirot-esque plots, with cups of tea tainted by strychnine-laced sugar cubes, forged wills, family secrets, and an herbaceous border sprouting poisonous plants.

The Extra Secret Sofa

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This one is a bit tricky. You might have to get ‘lost’ while taking a backstage door in order to get here. But the rewards are great. This sofa lives in the King’s smoking room. Located behind the orchestra pit,  you’ll get this place all to yourself if you get the timing right. But the extra effort is worth it as the rarefied surroundings will give your plots the regal edge that will take them to the next level. Did you know that decaying strawberry leaves release hydrogen cyanide? Think about that when you’re counting the leaves on your next victim’s coronet.

Behind the boxes

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Now ideally you’d want to be inside a box for peak murder-plotting, but if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, the narrow corridors that lead to them can serve you just as well. Lit by small lamps, the confided space and narrow doors will enhance your lateral thinking. Just make sure that the boxes are unoccupied if you are the type to go in for muttering the details of your plan out loud.

Above the dome

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Again, tricky. To get here you might need a little assistance from someone working at the ROH, as it’s not exactly accessible to the public. But I think it would be worth it. Not only would the location, soaring above the auditorium, help engender a sense of god-like power while gazing down at the audience below, but I hear that it’s also the place to go if you are after an accomplice with a very specialised skill set.

I have it on good authority that the space above the dome is where you will find the Nudger. So called because he spends his time during performances nudging the elbows of the spotlight crew as they try and keep their lights steadily focused on a performer.

If you’re planning is moving in the accidental-death-by-falling direction, then I think the Nudger could be of great assistance.

The fact that the Nudger also happens to be a ghost can only be a bonus.

Happy plotting!

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