The Multiverse is Female

You know that scene in Pride, when the young woman stands up in the working man's club, and sings out in her lilting Welsh accent about bread and roses, making everyone in the room a bit weepy eyed? Yeah, I totally wasn't thinking about that when I booked to see a show at the Bread & Roses pub.

If anything, it was a spur of the moment decision to go. Perhaps driven by my recent bread-and-theatre ponderings at the Hen & Chickens, or maybe by the rose-print dress that I put on in the morning. Or, more likely, because the marketing copy promised the presence of a female serial killer and I am all about that. I'm all about equal opportunities, and I don't see what the criminal classes should get off easily with fighting the patriarchy.

Still, it didn't stop me getting a little bit itchy around the eyes when I stepped through the door and saw the line "our lives shall not be sweetened from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as wells as bodies: Give us Bread but give us Roses" written in a scrolling script over the bar. It's right next to the sign for the theatre, making it quite clear what the roses are in this analogy.

The roses however, are not on view quite yet. A red rope cordoned off the entrance to the theatre.

I find a good leaning spot and wait it out. Unfortunately my spot is right next to the stage. The other stage. For the band that will be playing later on. They're warming up. Loudly. Very loudly. Like, ear-splittingly loud. They're not supposed to start until 9pm, and it's not even, so I can only hope that they're getting their levels set before the performance upstairs starts. Somehow I don't think this place has invested in top-notch soundproofing.

At least I know it will be a short show though. Gotta be done in time for the gig.

I'm not the only one keeping an eye on the theatre entrance. A couple wander over to have a look. Ten minutes to go and it's still roped off.

A moment later, someone disappears under the rope. That looks promising. I hope they are going upstairs to check if they're ready for us up there. And... yup. Sure enough, he's back. He unlocks the rope and reaches over to the bar to grab the bell. "Anyone for the theatre?" he calls out.

There's a general unfolding in the pub's clientele as people get to their feet and try to locate their bags.

I go over to the door.

"One ticket?" he says as he places a mark next to my name on the clipboard. "On the first floor."

There's a small landing half-way up the steps, with a window that's been frosted to reveal the pub's URL, the calling card of a 21st century Jack Frost. I stop to take a photo, but there's someone behind me.

"Sorry," I apologise. I hate getting caught with my camera out.

"That's okay," comes the sweet reply. "Take your time," he says.

But I'm embarrassed and I hurry up the remaining steps to the first floor.

The door to the theatre-space is just around the corner.

Inside, there’s a stage taking up most of the room, with chairs arranged on three sides. That makes it sound like a thrust stage, and I don’t mean that at all. The chairs are in a single row. If anything, I felt like I was picking where to sit at a dinner party. Our host for the evening has neglected to make place cards.

I head for a corner seat. For bag dumping reasons.

I immediately regret this decision.

Two actors are already on stage, and one of them is painting, daubing at a small canvas with a very long brush. I can’t see what she’s working on and I’m immediately desperate to find out.

“The best seating in terms of the view iss this side or that side,” comes a voice as more people traipse in. She points to the two long rows of seats. A woman on the end, discovering that she is in inferior seats, bursts out if her chair and hurries over to the row opposite my own.

I decide to stay where I am.

This must be the first raised platform I've seen used in the round. Certainly in a venue this small. I like it. Does away with those pesky questions of whether you're allowed to walk across the stage. You'd have to be very committed to stage-walking to get up there.

But that does lead to a lot of shuffling as people try to make their way between the chairs and the stage.

A few knocked-knees later, the seats are beginning to fill up. The advice regarding the view stops, and the sad little end row is eventually occupied.

We’re ready to begin.

Just to Sit at Her Table, Silver Hammer & Mirabilis is billed as a trilogy of woman plays, but instead of running one after the other, they decide to play them all at once, cutting between the three monologues, jumping from character to character in a fast-paced exploration of three different women’s lives.

All very different. And yet, curiously, similar.

Apart from the being women thing. That’s a given.

Joined by themes of psychology, religion and art, they each tell their stories, demonstrating duel natures to their personalities. The sex worker using wordplay and double entendres as she talks to her clients, the serial killer’s abstract paintings are influenced by the bodies of her victims, and the dancer reaches a heightened plain of spirituality as she purges herself of sustenance.

They even look similar. Tayla Kenyon, Ellen Patterson, and Sirelyn Raak are all white, blonde, young, and pretty.

They pad around the stage in bare feet, weaving past one-another, talking to the audience, but unseeing of one another.

I can almost imagine them as echoes of each other. The lives unlived. The paths not taken.

“Do you want us to help with the get out?” a woman asks her neighbour as the applause cases the three actors off the stage. I can only presume her neighbour is connected to the show, or that would be a very strange offer. (For those not hot on the theatre lingo, a get out is when… well, it’s literally when everyone gets out - breaking down the set, packing the props, crowbarring the actors away from the bar and leaving the theatre ready for the next set of props and players for their… get in).

He politely declines and they decide to meet up in the pub instead.

I have my own getting out to worry about. I seem to be stuck in my corner.

“Sorry sweetheart,” says the get out lady as she realises I’m blocked in.

Oh, theatre people. They truly are the best creatures in the world.

As I make my way to the door, I remember something and double back. I skirt round the stage until I’m there, standing in front of the easel.

I can definitely sense the dead bodies that went into making this.

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Keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie

Nicki and I are in the lift, trying to get out of the office.

"What are you seeing tonight?" she asks, as the lift decides to stop on every single floor on the way down.

I hesitate. Fuck it. Nicki knows about the marathon. She won't judge. "A play about chemsex," I say proudly.

Nicki shocked face is reflected out into infinity in the lift's mirrors.

Perhaps that's not the kind of thing you're supposed to tell your coworker. I'll need to check the employee handbook.

"My life is weird," I explain.

"No. It's brilliant!" she says, recovering quickly. "Just don't take any poppers. They'll probably be handing them around."

With this caution from a collegue eight years my junior ringing in my ears, I set off in the direction of Old Street. I was off to The Courtyard, which is a theatre I have only visited once before, nearly four years ago, but remains the location of my top theatre experience of all time: King Lear with Sheep. For those that missed the heading days of 2015, King Lear with Sheep was a shortened version of the Bards great play, with only one actor, and lots of sheep. Real sheep. Really real sheep. You could smell them all the way down the corridor and half-way down the stairs. Hear them before they appeared on stage. Read about them in their biographies listed on the back of the freesheet. And cry with them. The Sheltand Sheep by the name of Snowdrop, who plays Cordelia, rested her head back against's Lear's shoulder with such swanlike grace, her death-scene still haunts me. It was masterful, magical, and completely mad.

And now I'm back. For a play about chemsex. Potentially with poppers.

I don't know what The Courtyard was originally, but it has a certain Scottish Baronial look going on with its high walls and turrets. And effect only added to by the forest green canopy over the entrance, hidden away down a side street. The lairds of this castle are down on their luck, and have opened up a B&B while they save up to dredge the loch.

Other than the canopy, The Courtyard doesn't really go in for signposting their presence It's only when you step inside the green corridor within (grass now, rather than forest) that you get confirmation that you're in the right place, with posters and flyers dotted around the place.

Down the stairs and round the corner is the box office. Or rather, that's where I remember the box office as being. The nook is closed tonight. But there's a man with a clipboard, and he's taking names.

"The show starts at 7.30," he says, as he ticks me off. "I'll make an announcement in the bar when it's time to go up."


The highland theme extends into the bar. Leather sofas. Dark wood floors. Candelabras sitting on top of a piano. A traffic cone (no doubt left by a student. I went to a Scottish uni. I know what they're like). They've got a bit of trompe l'oeil action going on in the form of wallpaper printed with a bookcase design. And for true authenticity, they are completely lacking in signal. No bars in the bar. And not even a sniff of wifi to be found.

That wasn't the only thing conspicuously missing from the bar.

I looked around. And looked around again.

Yup, no ladies. Well, not many. Just me and... I looked around again, just to double check. Two others. Standing on opposite sides of the room, as if to prevent the air from becoming too saturated with oestrogen.

That was weird.

I mean... not surprising, given the subject matter. But a strange experience none the less. I don't think I've ever been in an audience that was not entirely dominated by women. Is this what blokes feel like when they go to the theatre?

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the one front of houser on duty. "The house is now open if you'd follow me to your seats."

He turns around and starts leading us down the corridor. Now that we've left the cosy bar behind, The Courtyard is beginning to look a bit like a school. Not Hogwarts. More like a secondary comprehensive. A nice one though, as we find out on our tour of the building - past some old-fashioned wooden lockers, up the stairs, and through what looks like a deserted dance studio, complete with mirrored walls, a forlorn-looking piano, and folding chairs stacked up against the mirrored walls.

The front of houser takes up position next to the door of the auditorium. Presumably so that he can count us back in and go in search of any audience members who got drafted into detention along the way.

For a converted school, laird's castle, or possibly library, the auditorium is surprisingly large. With a deep stage then seems to stretch back for miles, faced by banks of raked seating. But I know better than to trust the rake in fringe venues and stomp my way down the steps all the way to the third row.

There's something on the seat. There is something on all the seats. A freesheet. But not like one I've ever seen before. With the credits on one side and a full-page image on the back, these babies have been professionally printed. On a nice cardstock too.

These are going to make some quality programme-selfies. You know the ones. When a person holds their programme up in front of the stage to capture both the set and the paperwork in one perfectly lined up shot, as beautifully demonstrated by theatre bloggers everywhere.

One problem.

The stage isn't empty.

I don't mean the set. That's fine. The sofa and coffee table and whatnot aren't the problem.

The problem is sitting on the floor, snorting up white powder from that very same table. A coffee table which looks exactly like the one in my own living room. Without white powder though, just to be clear.

I still haven't quite worked out the rules of taking pre-show photos when there's a performer on the stage. My queasiness about the situation is probably indication enough that I shouldn't do it.

I do it anyway.

I mean, I have to. Right? It's what bloggers do. It's probably in the bylaws somewhere.

The seats around me gradually fill up and I left sitting in a cloud of cologne. I don't think I've ever been in such a well-scented audience. I dig out a cough sweet from my bag just in case my throat decides to rebel against the wafting perfumes.

The play begins. Two angels emerge from behind the back curtain. Stimulates and the spiritual combine with lots of talk of AIDS and sex and death. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit Tony Kushner, then yeah - I've been getting those Angels in America vibes too. It's even there in the title: Among Angels.

It's just lacking the themes of identity within a broader community told on an epic scale, against the backdrop of late twentieth-century American politics, with a mixture of wit, ruthless observations, and absolute tenderness. But hey, I get it. That's a bit much to ask for from a seventy-five minute running time.

We are treated to a heavy dose of meta-magic though as our main character, Stephen Papaioannou, is whisked away to the other side in an overdose-induced coma, finds himself in a theatre, and indulges us in a spot of the Prospero's "our revels now are ended" speech.

Angels come to listen to him, positioning themselves right in front of the front row, much to the annoyance of a member of the real audience, who turns to his neighbour with an expression of absolute outrage.

Even in the front row you can't escape the curse of the fringe theatre rake.

I take my time leaving. Packing away the freesheet carefully in my bag so that it doesn't crumple, and taking a moment to pay my respects at the sight of Cordelia's demise. Small groups stand around in the studio. There's more downstairs, talking quietly in the corridor. They could be waiting for someone who's involved with the show. That's the most likely explanation. But I prefer to think they were waiting to be called into the headmaster's office. I make a break for it, bursting out of the door before one of the teachers catches me.

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Bells and Whistles

There are some theatres that it is just plain shameful to admit not having visited. You can be a dedicated theatre-goer and not have gone to say… the Lyric (it could almost be argued that a true fan of theatre would not, in fact, have ventured anywhere near the Lyric), but can you imagine saying the same thing about the Royal Court? Or the Young Vic? I would class the Finborough Theatre in that category. Being a regular theatre-goer in London, going to the Finborough is pretty much essential. Not going is like… I don’t know, never having seen Hamlet. it’s such an essential component that it is almost qualifying feature. Can you honestly say you’re into theatre if you haven’t? I mean, really, it’s practically shameful.

Which is why I will never admit to not having been there. Because I absolutely have been there. Now.

I’m downstairs in the pub, waiting in the queue for the box office, which is a small desk towards the back of the bar. I can’t help but admire the t-shirts being worn by the two young people sitting behind it. They are grey marl, with the theatre’s red and black logo printed across the front, and so ugly that they must be deeply cool.

As one rifles through the tickets in search of mine, the other gives me the speech.

“The house is now open,” in the unhurried but practised tones of someone who has said this at least a thousand times before. “If you take up a drink it needs to be in a plastic cup. The loos are downstairs, the theatre is upstairs. And programmes are three pounds.”

Well, that’s everything of importance covered in four sentences.

I decide to avoid the business of the bar and head upstairs. While my ticket may have my name scrawled across the top, the seats are unallocated and I want to bag a good one.

There’s a door just opposite the box office desk. “Toilets & Theatre this way” reads the sign painted over it. I can’t help but smile at the priority given to those to things.

Despite the old school pub vibes of the building itself, the pub downstairs had that clean modern look that I imagine pubs in Scandinavia might have. All white walls, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork. The staircase that would lead me up to the theatre comes as a bit surprise. Red walls. Red balustrades. Photos and flyers are cramped into every available space. This is what the inside the head of a theatrically inclined serial killer must look like.

At the top of the stairs, there’s another cool young person waiting, in one of those grey marl t-shirts. She takes my ticket a rips a tiny tear into the top.

“There's no remittance,” she says, handing my ticket back. “But there is a fifteen-minute interval. Also, there's five people to a bench.”

I look at the benches. Blimey. Five people. That seems a little ambitious. Looks like I’m set for a very cosy evening.

I slide myself to the end of the second row. I don’t want to have to be squeezed up by any latecomers. Plus, there’s a nice gap between me and the wall. Perfect bag-dumping ground.

“Mind if I just put my bag down there?” asks a man in the front row, already heaving his bag over the back of his seat.

I shift mine out of the way.

“I'll put my coat there too,” he says, squashing down his massive puffer into a neat parcel which expands to fill the entire space as soon as he lets it go.

Two people join my row. That’s four of us now.

My new neighbour gets out a notebook and pen. You know what that means, right? Yup. It’s time to play another round of Blogger or Director! My favourite game.

She writes the title of the show: Maggie May. Then underlines it.


That was a short round.

More people are pouring in. Everyone begins shuffling about.

Two men appear. They want to sit together, but there isn’t enough space. They split up. One taking a spare slot on the second row, and then other climbing up to join us in the second.

My neighbour the blogger tries to get me to move along, but there isn’t anywhere left for me to go. “I’m already right at the end,” I say apologetically, but I wriggle over a fraction, just to show willing.

It wasn’t enough.

As the performance started, my new blogger friend did her very best to introduce her elbow to my ribs, constantly jabbing and poking and moving until I almost considered taking a seat on the floor alongside the collection of coats and bags.

You’d think someone who writes about theatre would have learnt how to roll her shoulders in. I just hope her review is worth the irritation.

Bloggers, ey? Who’d have ‘em.

The audience aren’t the only ones having to watch where they put their elbows.

I made a comment in by post about The Bunker, that they could have pushed in fifteen performers onto that stage if they’d had a mind to. But the Finborough went and did it. On a stage the size of my front room, they managed to fit dock workers, policemen, sex workers, a staircase, and a piano.

At one point I counted thirteen actors on stage, all singing and dancing. And that’s not even counting the pianist who was providing all the live music for the evening.

So rambunctious was one dance, Natalie Williams’ Maureen O’Neill’s earring went flying, skittering off out of sight underneath the staircase, and had to be retrieved by one of the blokes, who slipped it into his pocket. The next time Williams appeared on stage, she had both earrings once more and a cracking good line. “That’s disgusting,” she says in her thick Liverpudlian accent as Maggie May admits her love for the firebrand Patrick Casey.

I can’t help but agree.

I don’t know why this musical is called Maggie May, because although it follows her around, it isn’t her story. I anything, it’s about her love interest, Casey. A man she’s been obsessed with her entire adult life, even going so far as to call all her clients: Casey. Without him, she doesn’t seem to have any direction or purpose. She drifts from man to man, waiting for Casey to return, waiting for Casey to take her out, waiting for Casey to fall in love with her, waiting for Casey to finish campaign against the men in suits. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Forever waiting.

In the interval, half the audience tramp down to the bar and those that remain are left with the sound of gulls to keep us company. I get out the programme and have a good read, noticing with delight that the company had rehearsed in the Lantern Arts Centre, which was where I was last night.

 A loud bell stops my reading. At first I thought it the theatre bell, calling the audience back up from the pub, but as it goes on and on, I begin to wonder…

“Is that the fire alarm?” someone in the opposite bank of seats asks.

No-one replies but we’re all looking around now.

The air above the stage-space looks curiously smokey.

“Are you sure it’s not the fire alarm?” comes another voice, sounding more concerned now.

The bell is still ringing.

I look at the door, fully expecting an usher to burst in and tell us to get our arses out of there. But the doorway remains usher-free.

Is this it? Am I going to die in here? I’m feeling very calm for someone who is about to expire from smoke inhalation. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m going to be a theatre ghost, and I’m not made about my soul being trapped in the Finborough. I think I could do good work here. Not sure about my outfit though. I do like this skirt, but I’m not convinced it’s something I want to be stuck in for all eternity. Oh well, too late now to change, I’ll just have to…

The bell stops ringing.


Maggie May should have been left in the sixties, where it belonged, but the Finborough… well, it’s gear.

Fenian king  

The cast beat most of the audience

From flat caps to white t-shirts and levis

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100 x 100

It’s the hundredth day of the year and I’m off to visit my one hundredth theatre of the marathon. That’s a nice little bit of synchronicity that happened quite by chance. With days when I’ve seen nothing at all, and others where I’ve rushed around from one venue to the next, reaching the centenary of days in the marathon and the theatres visited in it, at the same time, didn’t seem likely. It's a mini miracle.

Back when I started this journey, all those years ago on the 1 Jan, I had vague plans of doing something when I hit 100 theatres. A brief overview of everywhere I’d been. Crunch the numbers and count up the stats. But here we are, and I haven’t done any of the prep work.

So, let’s just dive in with theatre one hundred, shall we?

I’m on route to the Lantern Arts Centre, which, in case you didn’t know, is in Raynes Park. Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either.

It’s one of those tricky venues that doesn’t have much in the way of programming. The runs are short and far apart. So when something came up that fitted the marathon criteria, I put it in my spreadsheet without too much consideration as to what it was that I was actually booking.

As I sat on the tube, trundling my way down to south London, I looked up the show I was seeing. A Turbulent Priest. Ah. Thomas Beckett. I’m already feeling smug about my historical knowledge, although it extends just far enough to connect the phrase with the name and no further.

The show’s artwork is quite possibly the most terrifying picture I’ve ever seen in my life. Two men, one of them presumably Mr Beckett, locked in a violent embrace, with their tongues hanging out and their necks in choke-holds, all in a style that makes me ponder what would have happened if Goya was ever let loose in a stained glass workshop.

I closed the webpage and read the latest Brexit news on The Guardian. Much less distressing.

Turns out Raynes Park is rather a long way from South Wimbledon station. I good 40 minute trek distance.

It’s a good thing the show started at 8pm.

Actually, I fully approve of 8pm starts full stop. Because 8pm starts mean short shows. And short shows mean that I can still achieve the coveted goal of being home by 10pm, even with an 8pm start. I mean, a 7pm start combined with a 60 minute run time is the ultimate dream, but I suppose if one has to track all the way to Raynes Park in a post-work rush, then 8pm is more than acceptable.

Even with my walk, I rocked up with twenty minutes to spare, giving me plenty of time to walk around admiring the building. It really is rather spectacular. Red brick, with twin turrets that might have gone some way to explaining the name. It does rather have the look of a lantern. No one of those glass camping ones, you understand. But a brass one, covered in latticework that throws pretty patterns all over the walls. The type of lantern that you tell everyone that you found in a Moroccan souk, but probably started its life in a factory in China.

It won’t surprise you to know that most of the building is given over to a church, but turn the corner and you find a small door leading to the arts centre side of the enterprise.

I stop to take more photos. A young woman approaches. She tests the door. It doesn't open. So she rings the bell. Through the window we see a man come running to the door, opening it from the inside. "Hello!" he says cheerfully.

They both disappear.

A minute later, an old lady comes along. She's heading for the Lantern too. The door rattles as she tests the handle. It's not opening. She makes a disapproving noise under her breath.

"So sorry about that," says the man as he opens the door for her.

She goes in and the door closes one more.

I'm done taking my photos, but I don't want to knock on the door and send them man running to open it again. It must be a right pain in the bum having to answer the door for every audience member coming along. I hang around, waiting.

Soon I spot another woman coming down the pavement. She's taking on her phone. "Yes, the bus drops you right outside the building," she says. Looks like we have ourselves another person going to the Lantern tonight.

"Hello!" says the man, all smiles as he opens the door for us, his enthusiasm undiminished by his door duties.

There's a desk in the foyer, and when he returns to his post I give my name.

"The surname is Smiles?"

"Ah! I remember seeing that one," he says as he flips through the envelopes before handing me the one with my name on it. "Have you been here before?"

I admitted I hadn't.

"You need to head around the corner, up the stairs and the theatre is at the far end."

"Round the corner, up the stairs, on the far end," I repeat.

"Or just follow someone else," he says with a smile.

But there's no one else around the corner, so I journey up the stairs by myself. I find a small group standing at the top. They're wavering.

"That looks like it?" says one, indicating the sole open door.

"Yes, just through there," says someone, apparently on stair duty for this exact circumstance.

We go in just through there.

Or true to, anyway.

There's some bottleneck action going on as people gather to examine the merch table. Or at least, I presume its a merch table. I can't get close enough to look. I squeeze myself through, emerging on the other side in a wide room. White walls. A wood pannelled ceiling that looks like it was transported directly from the seventies. Small posters dotted around at intervals advertising dance classes. It looks like a church hall.

It is a church hall.

There's a raised platform on the end. The stage. With rows of chairs lined up in front of it.

Some brave soul is sitting by herself in the front row. She's keen.

I slip into the second row. Slightly less keen.

"With do little seating they could have allowed more legroom," says a man as he too comes to sit in the second row. He's not wrong. The six or so rows of seats have all been bunched up at one end of the hall, leaving a mass of empty space behind us. Good for those who want to sit close to the stage, I suppose, but not so great for those who want to wriggle their toes every so often.

His companion suggests stretching out his legs underneath the seat in front, which must have done the trick because their conversation soon moves onto the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not the Turbulent Priest, you understand. The current bloke. Who, I have just now realised, because I Googled it to check the spelling of his name, is no longer Rowan Williams, and hasn't been since 2012! Wow, I'm really not keeping up with things. Turns out things do occasionally move on in the Christian church.

Needless to say I can't follow the discussion. Something to do with the Pope. Which, and I've already admitted my ignorance of this whole situation, seems to me to be about five hundred years too late.

I drift out of their conversation and move onto the next.

Behind me a couple are also discussing the Arch-bish. The old one. The really old one. Our man Beckett.

I stop listening. I don't want any spoilers for the show.

The lights dim. The sound of monks chanting fills the space.

Two actors make their way up onto the stage, then hide behind a black screen in order to make their entrance.

They are Saint George and Thomas the Apostle. And Beckett. And Henry II. And a hundred other historical figures that I probably did get taught about at school but have no recollection of. They rush back and forth, diving behind the screen to change costumes as they try on new characters, covering for each other with meta asides to the audience and singing songs in between the historical reenactments.

They are doing the absolute most.

I say 'they' and not their names, because I don't know what they are. There was no cast-sheet floating around (admittedly, there may have been one on the merch table... but that was a battle I wasn't willing to fight) and there's no mention of them on the Lantern's website.

Sorry unnamed actors. You sang. You danced. You changed costume. You educated me on medieval English history. And I have no idea who you are.

Wait, hang on… did they say interval? I checked my phone. But we had a 8pm start? What kind of sicko programmes a two-act play with an 8pm start?

Hamilton rap battle between church and state

A hundred shows in a hundred days. I’ve been to see one hundred shows in a hundred days. Not only that, I’ve been to see one hundred shows, in one hundred different theatres, in one hundred days.

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Le pain, c'est la vie

“Martha, have you been to the Hen and Chickens before?”

I thought if anyone would have been to the Hen and Chickens, it would be Martha. It’s a theatre pub. And Martha loves a theatre pub.

“No!” she cries, sounding distraught and a little bit ashamed about her lack of Hen and Chickens experience. “I really should. I love theatre pubs.” (Told you). “And it’s in Islington, isn’t it?” (It is).

To be fair, there are a lot of pub theatres in Islington. They’re like curry houses on Brick Lane. Bookshops on Charing Cross Road. Or estate agents in Finchley. Bloody everywhere. You have to be real dedicated to the pub theatre cause to go to all of them.

Thankfully, I am. Well, not specifically to pub theatres. But they are definitely part of my remit for the year. Along with barge theatres, museum theatres, outdoor theatres and all the rest of them. So off I go, negotiating all the roadworks that is happening around Highbury and Islington station, as I try to make my way around the roundabout to there (with a short pause to stick my hands through the barriers so that I could get a photo of the exterior without the decorative addition of plastic railings - I told you: real dedicated).

Back over the road and I’m taking some close up shots of the chalkboards outside. They’re advertising the show. “Tonight!” one proclaims. “Killing Nana 7.30pm £15,” topped by a banner stating “The pub/stage/is you” (that one took me a while to work out).

Two young women walk past, look down at their phones then back up again.

They stop. They’re looking at the two chalkboards. Then back up at the door. I know what they’re thinking. I had the same thought as I was taking my photos. There’s no handle. How on earth does it open.

“Is there another entrance?” one asks. They strike off, heading down the road. But the pub isn’t that big, and a minute later they’re back. This time they try the other direction, eventually finding a smaller, less impressive looking doorway. But while it may lack chalkboards to flank it on either side, it benefits from the presence of a handle.

They go in.

I follow them. Not in a creepy way, you understand. Just in a… I’m-done-procrastinating-with-my-photos-and-now-that-someone-else-has-confirmed-where-the-entrance-is-I-might-as-well-go-in way.

It’s packed inside. I have to squeeze myself through at least two groups just to get far enough inside to see what is going on.

To the left of the bar, and a little behind, is the box office. A little podium tucked away in the shadow of the staircase.

We go about the business of getting my name checked off the list.

“You're going to go upstairs when the bell rings,” says the box office man with a directness that I can only appreciate in a new-to-me venue.

He hands me an admission pass and a freesheet. There’s an unspoken agreement that he doesn’t need to ask if I want one, and I don’t need to trouble him with the request to take one.

I make to put the admission pass in my pocket, but something catches my eye. I turn it over. There, scrawled on the back, are the details of the performance. It’s not an admission pass. It’s a ticket. And a weighty ticket at that. it’s the size of a business card, but if you were to get these printed by Moo, you’d be paying extra for that heavy cardstock (I mentioned this to Martha this morning. “Islington,” was her one word reply. Fair enough).

When the bell rings, there’s a rush to the stairs.

The walls are a rather tasty shade of teal. I want to take a photo but there’s already of queue of people behind me. I just manage to catch a snap of the quaint order not to smoke in the theatre. A sign from a bygone era.

As we step into theatre, the teal is replaced by the more traditional theatre blacks.

It’s warm up here. Really warm. First thing I do is pull off my scarf, jacket and even my cardie. I’m still too warm. I need to sit down.


Oh dear.

The seat shifts under me. As someone who once broke a bed while merely sitting on it, this is rather alarming. I hold myself very still. There is no further movement from the seat. I think I’m safe.

Time to inspect the freesheet. And, oh look. It was written by someone in Hollyoaks.

Aww. That takes me back. I used to love Hollyoaks back when I was of a Hollyoaks watching age. I’d only given a brief glance of the marketing copy before going in, but it did all sound very Hollyoaks. Tortured family dynamics. Shut-ins. Overcrowding. This is going to be brilliant.



I think this must be the first time that I’ve seen vaping on stage. Cigarettes are still very much de rigour. But really, it’s as quaint as the sign on the stairs. With one action, they’ve instantly made every smoking scene in London look passé.

I wonder what the Hen & Chickens stance on vaping is. I didn’t see any signs disallowing it.


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Take Me To Church

Day 98 of the marathon and I'm watching my first opera. Not my first opera ever, you understand. Just the first opera of the year. I've seen rather a lot of opera, as it happens. I went through a bit of an opera phase a few years back. I spent a good chunk of my mid-twenties running back and forth between the ROH and the Coliseum to watch them. Strange now, that when you click those links - you don't find a post about me watching an opera. When it came down to it, my official marathon visits to the twin opera houses of this city, were to see ballets. Nowadays, ballet will always win out when it comes to a direct choice.

But I still like opera. Some opera. Okay, three operas.

Tosca (she refers to herself stabbing the #metoo award-winning prick in her life as ‘Tosca’s kiss,’ which surely has to be the greatest come-back line in history). Magic Flute (I'm basic, okay), and L'elisir d'amore (What can I say? I love, love).

I first saw Elixir of Love a million years ago, in an OperaUpClose production at the King’s Head and loved every minute of it. I loved it so much that I actually stole the heart-vision glasses that they handed out to audience members (I’m really hoping we’ve passed the statute of limitations for nicking audience-props here).

So when I heard the company where doing another Donizetti opera, and in a marathon-verified venue that I’ll admit, I’d never heard of before, well… I was there.

Except, where is there?

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church,” says their website.

Well, that sounds simple enough.

I strike out. It’s a nice evening. The sun’s still up and the rain has retreated for the time being. I have a nice stroll. Walk along the New River Path. It’s nice. There are ducks. I like ducks. Everyone likes ducks. Ducks are great. The way they waddle about on land and preen in the water. Ducking marvellous.

Even with my leisurely nature walk, I still arrive at Clissold Park far too early. So I take a short turn along the paths before the crowds of joggers chase me away again, back on to the narrowest excuse for a pavement that could be conjured up as a concession to pedestrians. A jogger comes my way and I have to clutch at the railing to avoid being sent flying into the wall.

Right. The corner of the park. That had to be coming up soon. I’ve been walking for bloody ages.

The Old Church is an Elizabethan church. The last surviving one in London, apparently. That shouldn’t be so hard to spot.

In the distance, a towering steeple looms over the tree-line.

I check the website again.

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church.”

I laugh. I can’t help myself. Those have to be the most perfectly useless directions that have ever been committed to pixels.

Let’s ignore the logic of signposting to one church by pointing out its proximity to another. That’s a nonsense, but not worth lingering on.

The more important point is that St Mary’s New Church can only conceivably be thought of as a new church when placed directly opposite a building dating from the 1560s. The new church is a friggin’ Gilbert Scott and is over 150 years old.

Here I am looking for some greenhouse with an oversized cross stuck on top, and instead I’m getting early Victorian Gothic revival served at me.

Feeling a little bemused, I turn my attentions to the old church, sat back from the road and lurking behind a veil of trees and ivy-covered graves.

The church is long. A country church. It reminds me of the one in the village where I grew up. Long and low, with proper mullioned windows that glow with warmth.

I have a little walk around the churchyard, admiring the heavy stone tombs, but people are going in and seats are unrestricted.

Through the arched doorway, I catch a glimpse of the interior. But I try not to look. I'm holding back. Saving it.

There’s a little desk set up just inside. I give my name. “Just the one?” asks the lady sitting behind it. “You’re in band C, which is in the back row over there. Pick any of the seats with a yellow sticker.”

Sounds simple enough.

There are a couple of programmes propped up on the desk.

“Can I get one of these?”

“They’re £4,” she says. “They have the full libretto in them,” as if to justify the cost, but I am fully on board already. “Card or cash?”

That’s not a question you get asked often when buying a programme, let alone in a church. I thought there were rules against that.

I pay by card.

Right, now I can look at the church. A really long, savouring look.

It’s lighter than I imagined. Despite the narrowness and low walls, it feels bright and airy. The walls are painted white. This truly is a church of post-dissolution England. That’s not to say it’s bare. Quite the reverse. The walls are packed with intricately carved memorials, dedicated to parishioners who passed hundreds of years ago.

Here’s one for Sire John Hartopp and his first wife, Sarah, who died in 1793 and 1766 respectively. Their names united in marble for eternity. There’s no indication of what his second wife thought about that.

There’s a bar in the corner. Selling wine, appropriately. And crisps, which feels altogether less appropriate.

Through the centre of the aisle is a raised stage, with that mirror like finish that I’m beginning to associate with theatres with pretensions of antiquity. The stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse had similar reflective properties.

I wander around, taking photos. With all the pillars and recess and the stage, it’s impossible to find an angle that captures this place in all its glory.

People are starting to pour in now. I should probably stake a claim on a seat.

Where had the box office lady pointed? The back row?

There are four rows of seats towards the left of the aisle.

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Over My Dead Body

A couple of my friends have a running joke that on the 31st December they are going to put on a one-woman play in one of their living rooms, sell tickets... and then not tell me about. Thereby bringing down my marathon at the final hurdle. Now, they would never really do this. Firstly because they are not that mean. And secondly, I'm fairly confident that marathons don't have hurdling involved (I could be wrong though, I don't follow sport).

Anyway, as I arrive at my next theatre on the list, I begin to wonder whether perhaps I had stumbled on their plan a little ahead of schedule as Drapers Hall didn't look anything like the image the name had conjured in my head and instead looked like a pleasant suburban bungalow. Albeit owned by someone with severe privacy issues, as the garden is almost hidden behind some very heavy duty black gates.

If it hadn't been for the poster board outside, I would have presumed it part of the estate that it lives in.

Which I suppose is the point.

The homely atmosphere extends in off the street, as the hallway is full of people shrugging off their coats to hang up on the rail, wandering around clutching steaming mugs of tea, and flopping down on the sofas.

I grew suspicious. Perhaps it really was a home, and this entire trip had been a meticulously planned prank from my friends. It was a little late for an April Fools', but it was all too perfect. If I were going to send me off to a fake show in a fake venue, then an immersive Hamlet would be exactly the sort of thing that I would plan in order to torture me.

Confession time! I've never seen Hamlet. Well, I've never seen it all the way through. I've seen bits of it. A touch of Tennant's while it was on TV. A dab of to be or not to be, acquired through cultural osmosis. I’ve watched that Tom Stoppard Play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And The Lion King. Seen that one. The film. Still have to make it to the musical. Although the countdown is on to get to that one…

As for immersive... well, you should already know my feelings about that by now.

I do my best to shake off the feeling. My friends wouldn't do that to me. They couldn't possibly be so cruel. Not least because one if them was supposed to go with me, but had to back out because she needed to go to some academic thing I didn't really understand that was happening at Yale... Oh.

I'm a cynical old bag by nature, but this conspiracy theory was a touch too extreme even for me. Still, I am so struck by the feeling that I have literally just wandered into someone's living room that it takes me a moment to realise that I should be checking in.

This is done, via mobile phone, and my name is instantly recognised.

Now, that isn't unusual. My name is very memorable. But sadly, this isn't the Smiles-effect at work here.

"You were supposed to be here..."

"Last Friday, yes."

That was true. I had booked to go last week, but the lovely people at BAC offered me the chance to crack through three of their spaces in one night, and when it comes to marathons, three theatres beats one every time. It's just basic maths.

Thankfully the people at Drapers Hall are even lovelier, and allowed me to switch my ticket to a different night.

"There's tea and food in the kitchen just round the corner, in exchange for a donation."

Well, this needed thorough investigation.

There really was a kitchen around the corner. A proper kitchen. Not some little pokey corner-room with just enough counter space to fit a kettle balanced on top of a microwave. There was an oven, with five hob rings. A chopping board lay ready to use next to it. I could have knocked out a Sunday roast in that kitchen if needs be. But there was no shortage of food. Beside the still steaming kettle, there was a plate of custard creams and an array of milks and fruit teas. And on the other side, there were crackers and houmous and hot cross buns and crisps and apple juice. No one was going hungry tonight.

“Follow me!” comes the call when the doors are opened. “You can take your drinks in, if you like.”

Many people do like, and they go through, clutching their cuppas for comfort and leading to the bizarre sight of ten or so people trying to work out what do with their mugs as they take their seats. The rest of us join the circle without the benefit of a soothing hot drink, and try not to look anxious.

The space is a small one. Not round exactly, but hexagonal - or one of those other geometric shapes that I can’t remember the name of - with high vaulted ceilings that stretch up into a sharp point above our heads.

It’s dark. There are wood panels. Kinda like a sauna. I’m certainly sweating out my nerves.

In the centre, sat on the floor, is Emily Carding - a name you will be familiar with if you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, as this is the third time her name has popped up in my posts (now beating Shakespeare by a single entry).

The doors close, sealing us in. That’s it. It’s happening. There’s no escape.

Emily Carding leaps up, ready to shake hands and greet us. Are my hands sweaty? They’re probably really sweaty. I hope they’re not sweaty.

No time to think of that. Carding is explaining what’s happening. We’re actors. We’re going to be given roles. Scripts are handed out.

First up: Horatio. That goes to a man sitting across the circle from me. Carding explains that it’s an important role. A speaking role, no less. He nods. He’s up to the challenge.

Next up… Carding comes over to me. “Will you be my Ophelia?”

Err. “Sure?”

Now, I may not have seen Hamlet, but I’m pretty sure that Ophelia is a significant role. Hamlet’s love interest, no less. Carding warns me that it’s going to be tough going. I’m going to get spoken to with some not very nice words. I smile nervously, trying not to show my fear. That was apparently the right thing to do. We were on. The role is mine.

As the other roles are handed out, I look at my script. I’m to take a letter and hand it back. Stand up. Sit down. Listen as people talk to me. That all sounds okay. I can deal with that. I stand up, sit down, and listen to people every day.

I keep reading.

I have a line. No, two.

Well, alright. Speaking is fine. Been doing that for years.

I keep reading.

Oh. Oh! I had forgotten the thing about Ophelia. The very important thing about Ophelia. The one thing that ends up defining Ophelia.

I was going to have to die.

I read the instructions. Then read them again just to make sure I understood them.

I say instructions, but this was no IKEA step-by-step breakdown of a theatrical suicide, but rather a guideline. Firstly, I was to tear up my script. Fine. Nice. I like it. But then I had to crumple the pages into flowers. Poetic. Nice. I like it. Except… how?

Carding gives our Laertes a stage combat less with invisible swords. She’s amazing. She’s got the stance down. She reveals she’s done this before.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdear ohdearohdear.

We have a trained pro in our midst.

Don’t fuck up, Max, I order myself. And don’t you dare show fear.

A thought occurs. Perhaps showing fear was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Is that why Carding picked me? She could see the raging anxiety behind the eyes? I didn’t know enough about the role to tell. This Ophelia-chick is clearly not having a good time of it. Perhaps I should be all shaking-nerves. In which case, I’m nailing this.

As the play kicked off and my fellow audience members began performing their assigned parts, I tried to figure out the problem of the flowers.

I could tear my pages in half. That would be very dramatic, I thought. And then perhaps roll each half into a tulip, twisting the length into a stem. No. That would take far too long. And besides, the script said to crumple.

Polonius and Laertes come over to sit with me. “He’s mad,” says Laertes. “Completely bonkers. Wouldn’t you agree, Polonis?” She ad-libbing, and she’s great at it.

I nod. My script says I’m supposed to listen to them, but I chance a weak “right…” of agreement.

Hamlet’s writing a letter. Carding looks up and locks eyes with me.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”

I mean… oof. That Shakespeare could write a mean love letter. No wonder Ophelia went barmy over this bloke.

I take the letter. My hands aren’t just sweating now. They’re shaking. I blame the contents. That is a damn inferno of words being held in them.

I hear my name. Ophelia’s name, even. That’s my cue. I get up. I’ve been told to return the letter to Hamlet. Carding won’t take it. I try again.

This is it. The scene I’ve been warned about. The letter is crumpled and tossed away. It looks so sad and pathetic on the ground. Like a child’s discarded homework.

“Get thee to a nunnery,” Carding orders.

I clutch my script. It creases under my grasp. That feels right. I try to leave, but Carding shifts to block me.

I’d always fancied that I’d make a rather good nun. I look great in black. But Carding says it with such venomous. My heart is thumping. Eventually, Hamlet is spent. The tirade is over. I’m allowed to return to my seat. I collapse into it.

Things aren’t going well for Hamlet either. He asks to sit in my lap while we watch a play, but Ophelia isn’t having it. A sentiment I can only sympathise with.

Hamlet kills Polonius and shouts at his mother, which is one hell of a day to be having.

“Tell Ophelia that Hamlet has killed you,” Carding orders the audience-member-formerly-known-as-Polonius.

This he does.

Oh god.

It was time for me to die.

I tear off a page of my script, crumpling it up and twisting the end to form a flower.

I offer it to the woman sitting next to me. She hesitates, then takes it.

The next flower goes to Laertes, sitting on my right.

I get up, crumpling the third page as I walk across the circle and hand over another flower. The fourth goes to Gertrude. The fifth and final page, the front cover which bears only the word OPHELIA, is given to Claudius.

I have no more pages left.

I go lie in the middle of the floor, crossing my arms over my chest, and close my eyes.

I try to channel Millais’ Ophelia. All wafting hair and serene expression. But I fear I’m more Elizabeth Siddal, freezing to death in the bath because she’s too frightened to tell the artist that the oil lamps keeping the water warm have gone out.

I can hear my fellow actors moving about. Eventually, Carding touches my arms, and I am released into the world of the dead, free to enjoy the rest of the play as an observer.

The invisible swords are back. Hamlet and Laertes are fighting. All rather exciting now that I’m a ghost.


Death after death follows. Laertes falls to the floor. Gertrude too. Claudius slumps back in his seat.

As Hamlet proclaims his final words, Laertes twists round to watch. Different rules apply when you’re a ghost.

Exeunt Hamlet.

We applaud, but Horatio steps forward to stop us. There is one speech left. He thanks us for our cooperation and bids us to applaud one another. This we do.

“You had a really tough role,” says Laertes as we pull on our coats.

Not quite as tough as hers. Making flowers is a lot less scary than sword-fighting.

“And your dress was so perfect!”

I look down. Oh. Yeah. I’m wearing my Forsythe dress. So called because it was once admired by the choreographer William Forsythe, and I like giving my favourite dresses names. Although it should more accurately be called the “Over my dead body” dress, because that’s what it says - right across the chest and down the arms. The arms I’d crossed over my chest while everyone had stood… over my dead body.

“That’s probably why you got picked as Ophelia.”

Probably. It must have been quite the sight when I was down on the ground being dead.

Hamlet may have escaped, but Carding doesn’t get away that easily. As we emerge back into the bright and welcoming light of Draper Hall’s foyer, we all queue up to thank her.

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Oh, LAMDA. I'll be sad to see you go. But part we must because I only have one of your theatres left and then it's goodbye forever... or at least, until next year.

Last up is the Linbury Studio. No, not that Linbury Studio. I was confused about that as well, but apparently, this city is big enough for two of them. Of course, there's the one you're thinking of. The one that lives underneath the Royal Opera House, terrorising the ballet girls with mask-wearing antics, and then there's the other one. At LAMDA. Where I am currently off to for a performance of Pomona.

Now, I've seen Pomona before, back when it was at The Shed (requiescat in pace). No, I didn't catch the original run at the Orange Tree. This was back in those happy days when I thought Richmond was way too far away to travel to just to see a play. I don't remember much about the play, other it being very dark, very complex, and being good enough to send me to Alistair McDowall's follow-up play at the Royal Court: X (the playtext of which still features as my absolute favourite of all time, but the ten or so pages in the middle that are filled with nothing but the letter X. Yes, it was performed. And yes, it was astonishing). And oh, it featured Cthulhu in some way that I really can't recall but there was some definite tentacle action going on.

Anyway, back off to Barons Court I go. I'm an old hand at this now. I'm not getting lost. I even know that the Linbury has a separate entrance to the other LAMDA theatres. Has its own little foyer and box office too. Well, I say box office. But it's really just a bar with a laptop. But, eh. It does the job.

I grab a free programme, and as soon as the house opens, head inside.

The Linbury is a bit of a strange shape for a theatre. Long and thin, with only two rows of chairs running up each side. The rows closest to us are already beginning to fill up, but there doesn't seem to be a way of getting to the other side without crossing the stage.

A small group of us dither, unsure of what to do. The beginning of a small pile up is beginning to form. The queue clogging up behind us. Where is the usher to shout at us for stepping on the stage? Apparently, that's not against the rules. Some brave soul decides to strike out, weaving their way through the huge concrete blocks that make up the ruinous set, leading us like Moses through the parted Red Sea, to the promised seats on the other side.

The front row has those shortened benches so beloved of drama schools. I ignore these. I don't want to be one of these people that say "people over thirty shouldn't..." but seriously, people over thirty shouldn't sit with their arses only two inches off the ground. It's murder on the knees. I leave that nonsense to the students. And there are plenty of those in tonight.

"Oh my god!" says a young girl pointing at the platform at the far end of the stage. "It's Chloe!" She waves. Chloe does not wave back. She sits, cross-legged, staring into the distance. Wearing a Cthulhu mask. The tentacles hanging down the front of her pretty white dress like one of the more outré Coachella outfits.

It's only then I notice that the stage is full of actors, slumped against the concrete blocks, lost in their own thoughts and agonies.

It certainly makes taking my photos a lot harder. What are the rules of taking pictures of students? I'm not a big fan of even capturing the professionals when they're on stage, and do my best to avoid them, angling the camera elsewhere as best I can, but sometimes there's no avoiding it, and well... I need photos, so there we are. But with students, it feels downright wrong.

Someone in my row gets out his phone, opens the camera app and aims it at Cthulu, zooming in so that she fills the entire screen.

Right then. That answers that question. Clearly the moral quandaries that I struggle with aren't universal.

Nor, apparently, is feeling the need to cross a stage. As our side of the theatre began to fill up, I notice that the newcomers hadn't come through the same door I had. They are coming through quite another door. A door that's on the same side of the stage as the one I'm sitting in.

Fuck's sake.

Bloody students, with their knowledge about where the doors are, and their youth, and their talent. Err, I'd hate them if they weren't so damn great. Look at how supportive they are, coming out to see their friends' plays on a Thursday night. I don't know about you, but I never go anywhere for anyone on a Thursday night. Or any night for that matter. At the moment I'm blaming it on the marathon - sorry love, can't go to your party, I'm theatre-ing until 2020 - but let's be real: I'm just a terrible, terrible friend. The warmth in this room is melting my heart and I don't like it.

Thankfully the play starts before I get any gooier, and we're thrust into a world of stolen people, hard underworlds, and RPGs. And oh, Pomona was so clearly written half a decade ago - riding high on the tsunami of dystopian fiction that threatened to engulf us in a thousand Hunger Games rip-offs, but that doesn't stop it being bloody excellent. I'd remembered the big reveal from the first time around, but I'd forgotten about the time loops, and how all the sub-plots fitted so neatly together, and, well... just how damn good the writing was. Dystopian story-lines may have had their day, but good writing never dates.

As the lights blink out and the cast come out for their applause, the front row leap to their feet in a standing ovation for their friends.

And why shouldn't they? If you can't rely on the people you love to cheerlead for you... what's the damn point of them. Be like LAMDA students. Give your peeps the standing ovations they deserve. For putting up with your nonsense, if nothing else.

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The Sound of the Underground

The Bunker. That’s a bar, right? In like, and old bunker left over from the war or something. Yeah, somewhere like Shoreditch. Yeah, yeah. I know the one. Full of hipsters. I mean, I don’t know at all, but I can imagine.

No? Really? A theatre? No. In Borough? What? No. Are you sure?

Turns out they were sure. And so The Bunker was added to the Official Website List™ for the London Theatre Marathon (as opposed to the unofficial list which lives on my laptop and is full of venues I’m still not entirely convinced actually exist).

Trying to pick one solitary show to visit at a theatre I know absolutely nothing about is a bit of a challenge. I try and do a bit of research, visit their website, follow them on Twitter if I’m really feeling rigorous.

So, I did both those things. Nice website. Full of triangles. I like a triangle as much as the next person, so, you know. Good stuff. Quality info too. Nice copy. Very much enjoyed the mention of them testing each and every one of their chairs for comfort. Not sure I entirely believe that, or even know what constitutes a comfort test (I would have thought sitting quietly for two hours, not being allowed to move beyond a crossing and uncrossing of the legs would be a good baseline), but it’s a nice line. Also stuff about e-tickets and QR codes and all that stuff which theatres always seem to bang on about on their websites, but never actually end up using in practice. I ignored all that. You can too.

Over on their Twitter feed we’ve got a lot of retweets. A lot of retweets. Let’s be real. It’s all retweets. And they’re from some very fervent and adoring fans. Not just about the shows either. They also like the loos (and the free tampons). And the writers’ snug. And the staff. And the music choices being pumped out in the bar. That’s all a good sign.

This trip was sounding more promising by the day. I just needed to pick a show. Any show.

I went back to the website, scrolling up and down the What’s On page, trying to figure out what would be the best option for me. Did I want poetry or political? An adaptation or a debut? I couldn’t decide. It was all very stressful.

But really, in the end, the best way to learn about the kind of work a theatre put on is to actually go there. Learn by doing and all that.

So I just picked a show, and booked.

Or rather, I cheated and booked two. In a double bill.

This blog is about the experience of going to the theatre and I was going to experience the hell out of The Bunker.

And, oh wow. It really is a bunker. Somehow this comes a surprise, despite the clue being in the name. Set back from Southwark Road, you slide down a long ramp that sinks below street-level until you get to a small door topped with one of those bunker-triangles that is now starting to make me think that this theatre has some illuminati tie-in.

Inside, water drips down the wooden walls and heaters try their damndest to fight against the chill blasting through the front door, but despite these grim conditions, The Bunker manages to avoid feeling like an air-raid shelter. In fact, I begin to think I might have been right the first time. This is a hipster bar in Shoreditch. I mean, let’s just examine the evidence shall we? We’ve got a circus colour scheme and faerie-lights to match. There’s a bar purporting to sell craft beers. Rugged wooden floors under our feet. And everyone here looks way cooler than me.

And like, not in a dungarees and beanie hat type of cool. But in a: I-work-in-the-theatre kinda way. I place a mental bet with myself that at least seventy percent of the audience tonight works in the theatre industry. I have no way of finding that out of course, but all the same, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win that bet.

I sign in at the box office. No need for e-ticket nonsense, I get given a paper wristband. Purple this time. I’m starting to build a collection. It will sit nicely against my BAC one. Purple and green. The suffragette colours.

Writstband acquired, I perch on the end of a bench and try not to lean against the wet walls as I listen in for theatre-related conversation.

“I am the patriarchy,” declares someone loudly.

The rumble of chatter stops.

A woman turns round in shock at such a blatant admission.

“Thank you!” she says. “I'd been wondering who it was! So happy to know it’s you!”

Well, I’m glad we got that sorted. But it doesn’t help me win my bet.

“The house is now open,” calls out a front of houser. “If you have a stamp or a wristband you can go straight through. If not, come see me at box office.”

Stamps for the light-weights only going to the first show of the night. Wristbands for the dedicated souls committed to seeing both of them… like me.

The three sides look like they each belong to a different theatre. On the right, the chairs have been pilfered from a pub somewhere. On the left, they definitely came from a board room. Whereas in the middle, we have colourful, squashy-looking benches. If The Bunker needs any help with their next round of comfort tests, I volunteer to tackle the centre block.

By the looks of it, The Bunker wouldn’t be short of volunteers, as we all headed for those soft and padded benches.



In my experience, a notepad in the lap of an audience member for a non-press night performance can mean one of two things. Either the director is making tweaks, or there’s a blogger in the building. Director or blogger. Director or blogger. I have a lot riding on this. As he flips the page, his sleeve rides up and I spot a flash of purple. Ha! Blogger.

Oh… wait. That’s not what I wanted. My chances of winning this bet are falling rapidly.


All ordered out for the changeover - if you don't have a ticket to bx clever but would like one you can upgrade at the box office


Should I buy a playtext? I really want a playtext.

They’re five pounds. Ten if I end up loving the second show too and want both.

I can’t afford it. Can I? No, I can’t. I have a freesheet. That’s enough.

It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.


Reviewer or director has a purple wristband


The f word which I know both the meaning if and the need to call it the f word word from my friend Helen


Box office keeps disappearing - buy h a radio alteagu




I'm doing all the drama schools at the moment. I was at rada the other night and guildhall last night

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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.


“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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The Wanderer Returns

It occurred to me while I was walking through Old Street that I was doing the exact opposite of what I used to do all the time a few years back. Walking from Bethnal Green to Angel was a regular habit of mine, as I left work at Rich Mix and went to see a show at Sadler’s Wells. Now that I work at Sadler’s, I find myself doing the reverse journey, down City Road, past Moorfields Hospital, round the Old Street roundabout, through Hoxton, past Box Park and the chain link fence covered with padlocks, up to Sainsbury’s, across the scary road I was convinced would be the death of me one day and… there it is. The place that had been my home for a-year-and-a-half back in the day.

It had been quite the traumatic journey. Seeing all the things that had changed (and even worse, the things that hadn’t). The newsagent that used to sell the most delicious, and yet worryingly cheap curries didn’t seem to be there anymore. But the car wash operated by staff a little too enthusiastic with their hoses still was (my feet remembered to cross to the other side of the pavement long before my brain did). There was the printers where I used to run down to hand-deliver my mock-up of how I wanted a flyer to be folded (now I do it via emailed clips, filmed on my phone - how times change), but it was shut so I couldn’t go in.

As I stood outside Sainsbury’s, on the opposite side of the street, I tried not to pick out all the ways the building at changed since I was last there. But, I couldn’t help it. Those vinyls are new. And the light-up poster-boxes have from the windows. I wonder if… I had to check. I ran around the building to look at the back. There’s a wall on Redchurch Street that runs along the length of Rich Mix’s backside. When I worked there it got painted with the name. It was pure Instagram bait, and I wanted to get hooked.

The words Rich Mix were still there, but they were different. Gone where the bright and blocky 3D typography and instead there was a more old school graffiti lettering going on. Metallic silver against a dark blue.

Change is weird. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Oh well, there was no use crying over lost street art. It’s time to go in and face the box office.

There is already a queue to get into the main space down on the ground floor - usually given over to the music performances that most people know Rich Mix for.

I ignore that. We aren’t here for a gig. Not tonight.

“I’m here for Stolen?” I said. I don’t know why I said it as a question. “Surname is Smiles,” I added, as if I was just a regular punter who hadn’t worked here for 18 months. Thing is, according to the box office system, I was a regular punter on a first time visit. I actually had to create a new account. Well, who needs to book tickets online when they have a box office a couple of doors down?

“The doors won’t open for another ten minutes or so, but you can hang out down here or go to the cafe,” the guy on box office suggested. I plumped for hanging out down there and busied myself admiring the new poster designs - so much better than the ones I put together during my time there.

The cushioned bench seats that line the front window were the same though. Still as ratty looking as I remembered. Comfy though. I perched, and edited my Theatre 503 blog post while I waited for the house to open.

By the time I got to the end it was 7.23 and I was pretty sure the house must have opened. Seven minutes before start time is cutting it close. I looked around. There was still a queue to get into the main space. And another one for the lift. Had there been an announcement? Did Rich Mix even do announcements? I couldn’t remember. I doubt I ever listened to them even if they did. With a staff pass, open times is just a bad pronunciation of the German banking family.

I scooted past the list and headed for the stairs, following the red line that is laid out on the floor in true hospital-style to lead cinema goers through the convoluted route up a level, past the popcorn and then around the main space’s gallery before reached the cinema-wing of this cumbersome building.

After the first floor however, the line peels off, and I am left to do the long walk up to the fourth floor alone. Really alone, as every level I pass looks dark and deserted. Still, nice views though.

The door at the top of the stairs takes you to the foyer outside of the fourth floor loos. If you’re quiet you can hear the bangs and screams filtering through from the cinema screen on the other side of the wall.

We have no time for second hand car chases though, so I turn left, through the double doors, past the lift and… there we are. Theatre space on one side, and the bar and more, shall we say flexible space, or the other.

“Sorry, can I tear your ticket?” asks one usher as I grab a freesheet from the other. Always doing things in the wrong order, me.

The theatre is already packed. These people are better than me at gauging when to go upstairs. There clusters of people sitting on the aisle end of the bench seating. No one wants to sit at the ends. Which is silly. The benches are all of three metres long. They only sit six bums or so at a time. Middle or end, it doesn’t make much difference.

“We’re pretty full tonight so move down,” says a lady who very much doesn’t look like an usher. “If people don’t move down for you… make them.” Golly. Hard line. I like it.

“I don’t mind squishing through,” I say to the three people sitting close to the central aisle. I really don’t.

They stand up, but that doesn’t help much with the whole getting past them as now their legs are in the way.

“Oh, sorry - I thought you wanted to go to the end?” says one.

Well, yes, but…

But they are already moving down the row. Oh well. Middle seat it is for me, then.

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At Home with the Sharky Twins

When did I last wash this skirt? I can’t remember. Was it clean this morning? Oh please god, let it have been clean on this morning.

Not the sort of thoughts to usually go through my head while watching a show, but as an actor gently gnaws on my knee, it’s the only thing I can think about. The ridges of her teeth leave only a line of pressure through the fabric of my (hopefully clean) skirt.

How on earth did I end up like this? With an actor biting down on my knee as gently as a puppy? Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

I was back in Battersea, after my epic run on three of BAC’s spaces on Friday night. I’d spent the whole day lolling around in bed and eating multiple meals composed of eggy-bread buried in icing sugar and was finally beginning to feel myself again.

Still, I wasn’t looking forward to doing that journey again.

Back down the Northern Line, all the way to Waterloo. Up the escalators, into the main concourse. Find a train going to Clapham Junction. Short journey there. Longer walk out of that labyrinth of a station. Walk up Lavender Hill towards BAC, turn a sharp right, then straight down Latchmere Road until I reach the Latchmere Pub.

Are we there yet? Not quite. Still need to negotiate my way across the busy junction so that I’m on the opposite pavement to the pub. Got to get those exterior shots, after all. Then back again. In the pub. Veer right, weaving through all the tables of Saturday-night revellers, then straight up the stairs and… there. We made it.

“Have you been here before?” asked the lady on both office after I gave my name.

“I haven't,” I admitted. I mean… you saw that journey itinerary. I’m a North London gal. If I spend too long south of the river, my haemoglobin levels start to drop.

She looked surprised. Although whether it’s because I have the look of a keen theatre-goer about me, or if it’s the fact that I might be about to faint after breathing in too much Battersea air just getting myself up those stairs, I can’t tell.

“Okay then,” she says, gearing up for what is clearly a practiced speech. “The theatre is just up those stairs,” she says, pointing over to her right where there is a flight of stairs covered in old Theatre 503 posters. “Seating is allocated.” She double checks the screen. “You're in A3. We're completely paperless so you don't need a ticket. It should be in the email we sent you. Did you get an email? I can write it down if you like.”

I did get an email. Lots of emails. Well, two emails. But they were great emails. Theatre 503 are definitely out there, fighting the good fight in making their theatre accessible.

First the confirmation email - with instructions on how to get there (including which entrance to the pub to use - nice touch for the anxious sorts amongst us. Me likey), how to pick up your ticket, and yes - the seat number.

Then comes a welcome email, which includes even more detailed instructions on the getting there (bus routes, stations, and parking) plus the added bonus of all those little things that so often go unspoken in our little club called Theatre. Latecomer rules. Bringing proof for concession tickets. The need to actually go to the box office on arrival.

They also, and this one surprised me, ask you to call the box office if you’re running late. When I saw this I was almost tempted to be late on purpose, just to call and see what happens. But yeah, my anxiety put its foot down on that one, and I turned up in plenty of time.

There’s also a follow up email. But we don’t care about that. We’re still at the box office after all!

“The house should open about 25-past,” continues the box office lady as if I hadn’t just gone on a 200 word tangent about emails. “So, you have time to go down to the pub and get a drink if you like. You are welcome to bring it in, but please no food.”

Didn’t I say Theatre 503 was doing the mostest?

“Can I take one of these?” I ask, noticing the giant pile of freesheets stacked up on the counter. I could. I take one, trying very hard not to notice the playtexts for sale.

That done, I go to sit down. There’s a very squishy looking leather sofa and I have my eyes set on it.

From this angle, deep in the embrace of the very squishy leather sofa, 503 could pass as someone’s living room. A very cool person, with an even cooler flat. But a living room none the less. There’s the squishy sofas (plural, there are two of them), a coffee table within leaning distance, and an equally squishy armchair just off to one side. By now I’m practically playing an imaginary episode of Through the Keyhole (“Who would live in a house like this,” says David Frost in my head as I contemplate the slither of kitchen visible through an open door). The bookshelf filled with playtexts may hint at a resident slightly more obsessed with theatre than the norm if you ignore the sign stating their price (a very reasonable £3.50).

The theatre bell ends my fun. The house for tonight’s performance of Wolfie was now open! A rush of regulars run to the stairs, no doubt still on unallocated seating time. I go with them, not wanting to miss the fun. The stairs creeks pleasingly under our pounding feet.

But I’m forced to stop in the theatre door.

That is no what I expected.

This was no pub-theatre blackbox, with a floor level stage and some battered furniture serving as a set. This theatre had a stage. And not only that, it had a set. A pastel coloured cloud that the two actors were currently using to bounce and turn against, like floating babies in the womb.

As my seat number, A3, might have hinted, I’m sitting in the front row. Not my preferred location, but for five pounds a pop, I could hardly say no.

This might have been a mistake.

Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville, the Sharky twins, as we are soon introduced, have absolutely no respect for the fourth wall. They are determined to tell us their story and they have no qualms about getting us involved.

As they are born, the front row can high-fived to celebrate their arrival into.

Their pockets are full of silver sequins, which they chuck liberally over us to demonstrate their pure, shining joy are being in this surreal world of theirs. Sequins coat my skirt, my boots, the floor. They tumble out of my hair.

You should sparkle for someone, they say. And someone should sparkle for you.

They sparkle for us. Sequins pour of them, littering the stage. They stick to their fingers and eyelashes.

Bubbles fall from the ceiling as the children of the forest tumble from the sky, taken back to the human world by a cynical woodpecker. Then burst on our cheeks with a cold kiss.

Balloons are handed to the audience, and planets are passed back.

Sophie Melville asks for a pen, and an audience member provides, lobbing it over our heads to land on the stage, where it is quickly picked up by Erin Doherty and inserted into her mouth where it is rolled around lavishly (it is later returned. Washed, I hope).

One audience member, deemed to have judgey eyes, is given a pair of sunglasses to contain the judginess. This is the second production of the weekend (and of Battersea) for the performances to insults the audience. I’m still not sure about that. But I’m sure playwright Ross Willis has thought more about this than I have. The judgey-eyed lady puts the glasses on, confused, but willing after a little encouragement from the twins.

And then there was the biting.

Sophie Melville, one of those falling children of the forest, abandoned to the trees for her father, is learning how to be a wolf. She runs, she hunts, she crawls between the stage and the front row, inspecting our legs, sniffing each of us in turn to see what kind of meal we would make.

My knee is deemed interesting enough to be worthy of further inspection. A bite. Gentle. She’s only a cub after all. And her teeth aren’t built for tearing. We all wait while a decision is made. No. My knee will not be dinner that night. She moves on to my neighbour.

I don’t know whether to feel honoured or offended.

Frankly, I think I should probably be grateful just to have survived.

I stumble back out into the night and somehow make my way back up the hill, feeling a little giddy. At the traffic lights, I check my phone.

From my pocket, stuck to my hand, is a round silver sequin. The little sparkle to accompany me home.

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The Real Triple Threat

Would you be shocked if I told you that I'd never been to Battersea Arts Centre before? Because it's not true, you know. I have been there. Just... not to see a show.

It's just one of those venues that feels impossible to get to. First the tube journey. Which isn't exactly a short one to begin with. Then the train. And then that calf-shaking walk up Lavender Hill. It took important work meetings to get me there in the first place, and a marathon to bring me back.

But I wasn't just going to the BAC to see a show. Oh no. I was going full ham on this expedition, hitting up three of their spaces in one night.

And you know what three venues result in? One hell of a long blog post. Get yourself comfy, my friend. Maybe even make a cup of tea. This might take a while.

"Which show are you here to see?" asked one of the young ladies behind the box office desk.

Always a challenging question at the best of times, but even harder when your answer needs to be given in three parts. I know my limits, so I don't even attempt to recite them from memory. I get out my phone and bring up the relevant email.

"High Rise eState of Mind," I started. "Then Frankenstein, and then Beyond Borders."

She didn't blink an eye.

There was a festival going on. Plenty of people would be doing a performance-crawl that evening.

"Here's High Ris," she says, handing me one ticket and then looking for the next box.

"This must be a nightmare for you," I say sympathetically as she tries to locate the right one of what looks like a dozen scattered across the counter. "So many shows."

"It is a bit," she laughs, finally finding the right one and flicking through the tickets until she finds the one that belongs to me. "And that's Frankenstein."

Beyond Borders was a little easier. From a plastic wallet she pulls out a sheet of green wristbands and begins tearing one off.

I roll up the sleeve of my jacket.

"Do you want me to put that on you?" she asks.

"Please. I'm useless at these things."

"No problem at all," she says, wrapping the paper strip around my wrist before giving me my instructions for the evening. "You're first show is o the first floor," she says. "There'll be a bell in the foyer when it's time to go up. Then you're in the Grand Hall. That's down towards the back of the building. And then you're on the first floor again." She must have seen the panic in my eyes at this point. That was a lot to remember. She smiles kindly. "Just ask someone and they'll point you in the right direction," she says, with all the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teenager who truly believes you got this.

Did I got this? I wasn't so sure. I'd not attempted three venues in a single evening before. Three in a day, yes. But that was a Saturday, started in the afternoon, required multiple hot chocolates to get me through, and resulted in me sleeping for eleven hours straight when I did eventually get home.

But, you know, sometimes all we need in life is for someone to believe in us. And I had box office lady.

The foyer was quite, but it was the kind of quite that throbbed with the echoes of activity happening elsewhere in the building. The bar was full. The exhibition next door had a healthy number of visitors staring at the walls. People rusher past, looking like they knew exactly where they were heading, only pausing to say hello and hug a fellow rusher.

I stayed in the foyer, not wanting to miss that bell, and had a great time taking photos of the bee-mosaics on the floor and sneakily listening into everyone's conversations. The BAC really is the most extraordinary building. With its bee-mosaics and its massive marble staircase that looks fit for yet another Beauty and the Beast remake. The whole place is sending up those chateaux-vibes. Post-revolution, though. When the townspeople have moved in and start replacing the Rembrandts with their kids' drawings, and painting slogans over the priceless panneling.

The bell sounds.

A foyer that had previously just contained me and a couple of front-of-housers was now teaming with people aiming for the stairs, with seemingly no time in between. They weren't there, and then they were. Rung into existence by the bell itself.

They weren't wasting any time. They bounded up the steps.

I follow their lead, attempting a bound for myself. But my legs aren't built for bounding, so filled with regret and a new twinge in my knee, I make my way up the last set of steps with something more akin to a hobble.

At the top of the stairs, we turn left, aiming for a door that, without signage or ceremony, I would have walked right past if it wasn't for the ushers standing outside waiting for us.

The signage it seemed had been reserved for the secondary door. The one after the ticket check.

"Recreation Room," it read far too smugly for someone that came in so late to the conversation.

The Recreation Room is dark. Too dark to get a proper photo. Blackout curtains cover the windows. And any hint of what recreations this room would usually contain has been removed.

Chairs have been arranged in rows in church hall format, but to preserve against the kind of mishaps we discovered at the Horse Stables, there's a small rake at the back. The BAC aren't newbies at this game. They know what they're about.

For a crowd that was willing to throw themselves up a flight of stairs in order to get themselves in this room, there's a lot of standing about as the relative merits of different rows are discussed.

"Is it sold out?" asks someone. "Shall we just sit here on the end and then move down if more people come?"

No one wants to commit to sitting next to a stranger if they don't have to.

Musical chairs ain't my game, so I pick the middle of the third row and hope the person next to me wasn't banking in having an empty seat for a neighbour.

Turns out more people where coming. And everyone has to move down.

A large group arrive. There are five of them. They scan the rows, looking for the mythical unicorn of five seats together in an unreserved theatre minutes before the show is about to begin.

"Do you mind?" asks one. Two people dutifully move down and the group manage to split themselves across two rows.

The Recreation Room door closes. The lights dim. Out comes the performers. And we are treated to an hour of tales from the housing crisis and class inequality in the form of storytelling and hip hop. As someone who has committed themselves to working in the arts, for reasons that made sense at the time, I felt every damn word. But hey, that's the trade off isn't it? No hope of ever having a home, and the constant fear of ending up on the street and dying in poverty in exchange for... ummm, what was it again? Helping make art happen or something. We don't do it for the money, so my must do it for the love, I guess.

We're asked to raise our hands if we have a dream house. Somewhere we long to live that isn't where we're at now. Only about half of us have their hands raised. I look around the room at those with their hands in their laps and see a bunch of liars.

"Where would you like to live?" Conrad Murray asks a front row hand raiser.


"And where do you live now?"


We all nod sympathetically. That's rough.

Turns out she lives alone. And owns her place. Sympathy levels drop. Well, she doesn't work in the arts, clearly. And she probably will end up working in America. She even gets a song improvised just for her.

Right. Show over. Next stop: The Grand Hall for Frankenstein. I wasn't the only one.

"Anyone seeing Frankenstein?" asks Conrad Murray.

Someone in the front row whoops.

"Well, I'll see you there! And if anyone would like a programme, with lyrics printed in them, we'll be selling them for three pounds."

Oh. Oh!

Do I want a programme? Stupid question. I always want a programme. The real question is, do I have three quid on me. I'm fairly certain I gave my last note to the programme seller at the Trafalgar Studios, and I hadn't made it to a cash point yet.

In the queue to leave, I pull out my purse and try to cobble together the funds, trying to ignore the small voice at the back of my head that tells me that I should be saving the coins for a deposit, not blowing them on programmes. "Or at the very least, spend it on clothes!" says the voice. "You can sell clothes. No ones wants your second-hand programmes."

Yeah, well, I want my second-hand programmes. And you can claw them from my cold, dead, impoverished, and paper-cut hands after I'm gone.

I manage to make up three quid in change and hand it over to the Lakeisha Lynch Stevens, who has swapped her role of spoken word artist to programme seller to see us out.

"That was so good," I tell her, truthfully. It really was.

Back down the stairs. Now where? People seem to be drifting towards the left. I follow them and see a sign of the Grand Hall. Super. We were all going the same way.

Down a corridor and a flight of stairs and... if I thought the main foyer was fancy, it was nothing to the space I was in now. Stone arches balanced on marble pillars. Grecian alcoves cradling statues of naked lady nymphs and boys with wings. There was even a dome. Made of glass.

"Are you picking up a ticket?" asks a girl as I stop to take a photo.

"Oh, no, sorry," I say, stepping out of the queue that I had managed to barge into without noticing. I'd been too busy gazing up in awe at that glass dome.

I manage to stop staring long enough to realise that the direction of the crowd was shifting down a corrdior. I fell into step with them, but the convoy came to a halt as we all stopped to take photos. After the marble and glass of the foyer, the corridor is rocking a touch of monastery chic. The austere walls no doubt a remnant of the fire that engulfed this part of the building just over four years ago. I manage to almost convince myself that I can smell the smoke. Probably my overactive imagination, but there really does seem to some sort of strange scent - a touch of eau de polyester-top-that-has-been-left-too-long-in-the-dryer.

Finally, we all managed to put our phones away long enough to get to the end of the hallway and... oh baby. There it is. That's what I was after. The Grand friggin' Hall in all its glory.

I was there for Frankenstein, which I am always down for watching a new interpretation of (I stan Mary Shelley so hard, she's the ultimate goth mother). There seems to be a lot of them at the moment. It's the story de jour, and I ain't complaining, Still, I'd like to know BAC's reasons for putting on the show. I mean, the story of a battered and broken corpse, resurrected, rebuilt, and reanimated... seems like an odd choice of programming for the venue. But then, what do I know.

The tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling so that they flicker just above the stage like a colony of glowworms. Their orange lights don't have much reach, despite the coils burning brightly inside their glass homes.

I find my seat, with a tasty freesheet waiting for me on it. No stressing trying to find an usher to beg one off. A freesheet on your seat is the theatrical equivalent of a chocolate on your hotel pillow. It's a classy touch.

I crane my head back, trying to get photos of the ceiling. Intricate patterns spread out over us. It looks like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral rendered in mdf. Or an intricate paper cut out. Or perhaps a brand new colouring book waiting to be filled in.

Lights dim. Show two.

Except no. Conrad Murray is back. Just as he promised. He introduces the cast, all from the BAC's Beatbox Academy and then... oh no.

He's trying to recruit us. Worse. He's trying to teach us.

"Boom! Tee! Cha!" he shouts, getting us to repeat him.

I'm not ready for this. I definitely can't do this. And I don't mean in a cutsie "I'm too shy and quiet to let my voice shine," kinda way. I mean in a: "I cried every day for a year to be allowed to give up piano lessons," kind way. I'm not musical. I am the opposite of musical. If it's possible to have negative musical talent, that's me.

We've discussed how I can't clap out a rhythm multiple times on this blog.

My lack of musicality is my great tragedy.

Being asked to join in with this stuff just sends me into a shame spiral.

Everywhere around me people are Booming, Teeing and Claing.

And I'm... not. Very much not. I sit very quietly and wait for this all to be over.

"When I say Battersea Arts, you say Centre," starts the call and response. "Battersea Arts"


"Battersea Arts!"


I swear it's Thriller Live all over again.

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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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My Pally Ally

I made it a whole 85 days without seeing any Shakespeare. Quite the achievement when I’ve seen 86 shows in that time, all in what has to be the most Shakespeare-centric city in the world. I used to joke that watching Shakespeare in London was unavoidable. Even if you don’t go to theatre. It’s everywhere. If you wanted, I’m fairly certain you could watch a live Shakespeare performance play every single day of the year (except, possibly, Christmas Day) and never have to cross the M25.

Actually, if anyone wants to give it a go, that sounds like a great blog, and I will fully support your endeavour…

Anyway, yes. Shakespeare. 85 days free. That’s one hell of a run in this environment.

I once managed a year of not seeing any Shakespeare (I’m not a newcomer to the year-long theatre-challenge), but when you are intent on visiting every theatre in London, and at least one of those theatres is dedicated to the work of that most over-produced of playwrights, well… I was going to have to go to one eventually.

Step forward the Alexandra Palace, which, for a very short time, contained the newest theatre in London. They are currently playing host to Headlong’s Richard III, which everyone and their dog has been raving about.

Once that decision was made, it was only a matter of selecting the right person to go with.

“I’ve already thought of a blog title,” I told Allison as we waited to get our bags checked and enter the theatre-foyer. We’d already had a good wander around the main foyer of the East Court. A vast space with curved glass ceilings and massive stone pillars that makes you truly understand why this palace is called a palace.

“Oh yeah?” she replies, demonstrating the kind of polite interest that only a true friend can pull out in the face of being told about a blog post title.

“Pal Al at the Al Pal,” I say, feeling very pleased with myself. “Or perhaps My Pal Al…?”

“My Pally Ally!” she crows back.

“Shit, that’s better than mine.” I mean, it is, isn’t it? And she got there in five seconds flat. I’d been crafting mine the whole way over. And while I’m not saying that I invited her just because her name is Allison, the fact that her name is Allison and she lives within stumbling distance of the Ally Pally was a thought that had crossed my mind.

At this point she pulls a tissue from her pocket and blows her nose delicately.

Ah yes. I’d forgotten to mention that. Allison is sick. With a proper nasty bug. And I’d dragged her out of her bed, on a freezing, dark night, to watch Shakespeare with me, because her name has great punning potential.

Never let it be said that I’m not a truly terrifying friend.

“Order you drinks for the interval at the bar, ladies,” advises someone as we step through the doors. “They’ll be a massive queue, I guarantee it.”

“Do we want drinks?” I ask Allison. But she’s ill and I’m not fussed so we head inside.

“It’s nice that they have a proper foyer. Theatres in London never have proper foyers,” says Allison. “There’s no where for everyone to go in an interval.”

This is so true. Outside of places like the Barbican, there really aren’t many foyers in London theatres. No ones that can fit more than four people and their respective umbrellas at the same time.

Through the next set of doors and we are plunged into proper theatre lighting. That is to say: it’s dark.

“You’re over there on the left,” says the ticket checker, and we head off to the left.

A few more steps and the modern sleekness, the shiny newness of it all, suddenly stops.

Here the walls are bare not because they have never been painted, but because they have been painted so long ago the colour has long since sloughed off.

“Please keep this area clear,” reads a sign. We do as it says and move on down the corridor. But we don’t get very far.

If Wilton’s is the mother of decayed theatrical elegance, then the theatre at Alexandra Palace is the grande dame. Wooden slats peak through the holes in the ornate ceiling, while bare brick walls compete for attention with the carved mouldings.

Strategically placed lights highlight what remains of the plasterwork and send the gargoyle features of the twin cat faces gazing out from either side of the old doors.

“Hmm,” says the ticket checker. Our third ticket checker of the evening. “Well, you’re in row N, which is right here,” he says, indicating the row. “But you’re way down the other side.”

We all look at the row N. It’s a very long row. And there’s some sort of sound desk in the middle.

 “Shall we go back round?” I suggest?

 “Yeah… that’s probably easiest.”

We go back out into the foyer and start again, this time going in the right direction, which is the right direction to take.

“For such a big venue, there’s not a lot of signage,” I tentatively suggest. Where other theatres might post a sign with some sort of indication of the seat numbers that can be accessed through each door, the Ally Pally posts people.

“Row N, just over here,” says our fourth ticket checker as we make our second attempt at entering the auditorium.

The seats are wide and covered with a peach coloured velvet which feels like moleskin. We all know my feelings about velvet. With seating this new, I almost manage to convince myself that giving them a quick pet isn't all that creepy and disgusting. There probably isn't even chewing gum stuck to the bottom yet.

"Are those mirrors," I ask, eventually managing to stop stroking the chair I was sitting in and start paying attention to the set.

"I think so," Allison croaks. She really doesn't sound good.

This play better be good or she's never going to forgive me.

Turns out they were mirrors. Six of them. Pointed into gothic arches and used as doors and windows through the performance. There's an article in the programme about Shakespeare and his use of mirrors in the programme (£4) which is well worth a read.

There's also lots of stuff about the history of the Ally Pally and its restoration, which is all rather fascinating, but doesn't answer the one question that I had about this place.

"What sort of work did they have here?" I asked during the interval, twisting around in my seat as I attempted to take a photo that would capture the sheer enormousness of the space. "Like music hall? Or plays? Surely not plays. It's way too big. Maybe opera?"

"Operetta probably," says Allison, demonstrating once again that even in the grips of the most nasty of colds she can still outthink me. Operetta does seem the most logical thing for the Ally Pally of old. Those fun-loving Victorians must have gone mad for a bit of Gilby and Sully in this room.

Thankfully with the benefits of modern technology, we could enjoy a proper play without the actors having to scream their lines at inappropriate moments.

"You know, I've never been much of a fan of Richard III, but I really fucking loved that," I said as the applause faded. We sat back in our seats as the audience began to file out. "I don't think I've ever seen it played that that. Actors usually amp up the evil, but he was pure cheeky chappy. I liked it."

I did like it. The Richard III ravers have all been going on about the physicality of Tom Mothersdale's performance, and yes... that's great. He moves those long legs of his like a dancer, propping his elbow against his knee and pushing down his full bodyweight as he leans in to whisper his plans to us. But its the whispering, not the leaning that does it for me. With a side-eye lifted straight from Fleabag we are let into the secrets of a very naughty schoolboy. This is Just William grown up and gone to the bad.

"If I go to Ally Pally station, can I get a train to Highbury and Islington?" I ask as we eventually heave our way out of the plush seats and head for the exit. I'd walked from Highgate to get there. It was a nice walk. Google Maps had sent me through some woodland which I always enjoy. I grew up with a wood on my doorstep, and I've always felt at home in them. The woods is a great place to go when you feel down. No one can hear you cry in the woods. But as the sky got darker, and the shadowers denser, I did question Google's thought-process in sending a woman walking through the woods... After all, no one can hear you cry in the woods.

Allison stuffs her tissue away. "I'll take you to the bus," she says, walking me out to the correct stop and rattling out instructions on how I need to get home.

Honestly, I really don't deserve my pally ally.

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A Conspiracy of Signs

God I love the Southwark Playhouse. No, I really love the Southwark Playhouse. I can't think about it without getting a dopey grin on my face. I have such happy memories connected to that place. From waiting for a friend who was working front of house there during a run of Philip Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, when the theatre was still under the arches at London Bridge, and getting handed one of the flaming red feathers when she eventually appeared (I still have it, Emma!). To going to the new (well, current) venue with the Chief Exec of the theatre I was then working for, and bonding in the interval over a shared love of musicals. To drinks with friends in the bar. To watching crazy musicals by myself (Xanadu…).

I fucking love the Southwark Playhouse.

It's one of those places, like Wilton's, that draws fierce affection from its fans. The vibe is cool, the atmosphere chill, but the work is smoking hot. Even when it's bad, it's brilliant (Xanadu again…).

I’d been trying to ‘save’ my visits to the Southwark Playhouse for when I was feeling a bit down, a bit in a need of a pick-me-up. But with my first season brochure of the year off to print, I thought I deserved a treat, dammit.

And besides, with the Playhouse announcing that they were opening two new venues this year, I needed to get a move on.

Plus, the glorious Ruby Bentall was doing a show in the larger of their two current theatres, so, I mean, I couldn’t really be expected to miss that now, could I?

Almost did though. It closes at the end of the week. For all my spreadsheets, I’ve still managed to cut this one fine.

No matter. I was off, marching across Blackfriars Bridge, through Newington, and there, gleaming out through the darkness was the jaunty sign over the door, its angle, tilted like the hat of Second World War’s rakish villain, telling you everything you need to know about this place.

“You know you still have some Pay-As-You-Go tickets on your account?” says one of the ladies on box office as she looks up my account.

“Do I?” I’m genuinely surprised. I thought I had blasted my way through those ages ago.

She confirms that yes, I do intend have some left.

I couldn’t keep the grin from my face. Well that was a turn up for the books! Only been in the building five minutes and already I’ve got some great news.

For those who aren’t in the know about these things, the Southwark Playhouse runs a scheme where you can pre-pay for five tickets vouchers at a discounted bulk-buy rate, and then use them towards your future visits. It’s basically like getting a free ticket, paid for by past you. Which I guess is like every ticket… but someone it doesn’t feel that way.

Anyway, it’s a great deal. And an even better investment as there’s no expiry date (I don’t think…), and so, like postage stamps, hold their value.

That sorted, we rapidly check off all my key points of a great theatre: real tickets (the tearable kind), proper programmes (two quid), excellent signage (both charming and clear, the winning formula), somewhere to sit down…

As I wander round trying to find the best place to park myself, I stubble on the smallest room I’ve ever seen. At first I think it’s a cleaning cupboard (yeah, seriously, that’s how small we’re talking here), but being the nosey parker that I am, I mean the intrepid blogger that I am, I have a look inside. Chairs. There are chairs. And a bookshelf. And a safe. Which has to win the prize for quirkiest place to set down your drink.

Now, I may be a long-term Southwark Playhouse fan, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for the cupboard seats just yet.

Instead, I found the perfect little corner table, just the right size for one lonesome theatre-goer, with a clock to keep me company as I proofread my Rosemary Branch blog post.

My proofreading didn’t last long. The pair at the table next to me were having a good theatre-chat. And theatre-chats are always worth listening into. Yeah, I’m admitting to it. No shame here. Theatre-chats are public property, I feel. Are at least, in the public interest, and therefore worthy of publication.

“You know why they cast a woman, or a cat, in the lead role?” says the man, leaning back as he prepares to lay down some quality intel. “It’s to get the young people in.”

Was he…? That was a joke… right? He wasn’t really comparing female lead actors to cats? Was he?

The rest of his conversation (which I won’t type out, to protect the guilty) suggests that no he wasn’t joking. And that that yes, he really was that insensitive to, well, everything from the importance of diversity on our stages to the benefits of creative interpretations of classic texts.

My blog post remained unproofread, serving as just something to rest my eyes on while I listened to this man talk at his female companion about everything that was wrong with modern theatre.

Right then.

Time to watch some theatre then.

Back into the bar, down the chandelier lit corridor, past The Little theatre, and into the very largely signposted Large theatre.

There’s always a moment, when you step out of the blazingly lit corridor and throw the door of The Large, when you are plunged into darkness. Blinking against all that blackness, you creep slowly around the corner, through a second door, and then suddenly the space widens up in front of you and you find yourself standing in this vast room with massively high ceilings and an usher rushing towards you, ready to walk you over to your seat. No confusing instructions and vague points to show you the way here. With the seating currently set up in traverse for the run of The Rubenstein Kiss, you are guided over to the right bank of seats and practically waved away with a sandwich in your bag and a clean handkerchief tucked away in your pocket as you go.

That famous aria from Madama Butterfly filled the space, and I breathed it in as I took off my coat and settled into my seat, feeling more than a bit smug about recognising it.

My smugness was soon cancelled due to bad weather and I began to wish that my metaphorical sandwich and clean handkerchief had been supplemented with a reminder to wear a warm vest. It was freezing in there.

It was hard to even watch the cast, especially poor Ruby Bentall and Eva-Jane Willis, fussing about the stage in vintage summer dresses. Their arms bare against the chill. Although, I suppose (allegedly) selling state secrets to the Soviet Union helps keep you warm.

You know, it occurred to my last night that almost all of my knowledge of US history comes from theatre. I can’t be the only Brit to be able to trace every fact they have on the founding fathers comes back to Hamilton. Despite studying the Cold War at school, I had gleaned almost all my knowledge of nuclear espionage from the ghostly apparition of Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America. So, thanks to Tony Kushner and Lin Manuel Miranda. Without you I would be even more ignorant than I am now.

And I guess to James Philips too. His play may only be inspired by rather than based on, but it helps fill some of the larger gaps in my brain with some form of narrative that no doubt will aid me in some other play down the line.

In the interval, I made sure to exit the stage via one of the doorways on the set - a tall column reaching up to that high, high ceiling, printed with the snaking staircase of a New York fire escape - giving a nice thrill as I was able to turn back and see the opposite side of the tower - from which Ruby Bentall had pulled all manner of props from during the first half.

For the interval, I found a quiet corner to finish off my blog post, and closed my ears to distraction. Somehow listening to theatre-chat didn’t feel quite so harmless anymore. But the Playhouse wasn’t having it. The music was turned up and I was soon bopping about to the sounds of Madonna and her critic of global consumerism while I dragged and dropped the images into place.

For the second act, I wasn’t taking any chances. I put on my coat.

But the team at the Playhouse had been busy, and hot air was being pushed into the space by a very loud blower. Which explains why they couldn’t have it on during the performance. When it cut off, I realised that Madama Butterfly had been playing all along, imperceptible under the roar of the blower. Which is hella poignant, and I’m choosing to believe, utterly intentional.

In fact, everything about the night is beginning to feel intentional.

From the private conversation that I really shouldn’t have listened into.

To the jokey First Rule about the Pay-As-You-Go subscriptions (You DO NOT talk about the Pay-As-You-Go subscription) on the Southwark Playhouse’s website.

To the gentle reminder from box office that I should really keep an eye on my account.

To Madonna’s tale of caution of choosing love over tangible benefits.

The threads all came together, jumbling themselves into a knot of red string that I couldn’t untangle.

Has the Southwark Playhouse been running the most subtle immersive experience in London? Or could it be that in fact, darker forces are at work. I could not help but ask myself: how deep does this conspiracy go?

This intrepid blogger… will not be pursuing this case any further. I’m sure it’s mere coincidence and nothing more.

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Branching out

So, here's the thing. My marathon has rules. Not many of them. But they rules.Theatres only count if I can get to them by Oyster card. They need to put on actual theatre, or dance, or opera. They need to have publically accessibly performances, and I need to actually watch the show. You know all this. You've read my FAQ.

But there are the rules.

And then there are the rules.

The unofficial ones. The ones I don't publish anywhere because they only live inside my head. The ones that drive my booking decisions.

Throughout the marathon, I've been picking the shows I see with two things in mind. Firstly (and most importantly) I try and go to something that I'm actually interested in. Or the thing I have the most potential to be interested in based on what is on offer. This can be tricky, especially when theatres only announce their season a few months in advance. Do I book this semi-non-awful looking scratch night? Or do I hold out and hope they have some phantasmagorical musical later in the year? The second thing I try to do, is pick a piece that is in keeping with the general artistic values of the theatres. Where possible, I avoid hires (when an outside company pays money to show their work there, rather than being invited to perform by the artistic team at the theatre, or a work that is produced by the theatre itself), and I also avoid things that stand out - not because they look brilliant - but because they are so starkly different to the rest of the programme. If a theatre specialises in say, Restoration comedies, I don’t feel comfortable booking a night of political poetry, just because I fancy a bit of spoken word that week.

This can be tricky.

There are some theatres that almost exclusively programme cabaret or comedy, neither of which count towards my marathon, but are included because every so often they put on a play. Obviously, in these situations, I need to go with the play.

Other times, the options look so completely awful that I cannot, simply Can Not, bring myself to go to them. I hold on, waiting, hoping, begging them to bring something more within the realms of what I'm into, until... thank the lord. Something appears on their website.

So it was with the Rosemary Branch.

Months and months of interactive game nights filled their space, and I just couldn't do it. Not for the marathon. Not for you. Not for nothing. I’m sure they are just brilliant, but to quote the great Elle Woods: “Suffice to say, it was just wrong, all wrong. For me, ya know?”

And then, while doing by fortnightly blitz through all the website of the remaining theatres on my list, I spotted something. A scratch night. Theatre. Plays. Written by women. And it was free! My patience had been rewarded. I booked so fast I broke a nail (true story).

That sorted, I was off to the Rosemary Branch.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. Which is shocking as it’s a pub theatre within walking distance of my work. And I love a pub theatre within walking distance of my work! When talking pub theatres, Islington is the land of Milk & Honey (name of my pub theatre when I open it in Islington). So, I was more than happy to add another one to my mental roster.

After a short stop of a Paul on Upper Street I would my way down through all the wide streets of gorgeous terraced houses towards Shepperton Road. The dogs I pass along the way all crane their heads to get a sniff of the Pavot Poulet baguette I have in my bag. They’re right to. It does smell good (and taste good. Just had it for my lunch while writing this here post. Yum).

Turns out the Rosemary Branch is right next to a park, which would explain the number of four-legged friends I had made that evening.

On their website they claim to be a former music hall. From the outside, I can see no evidence of this. It looks pure London pub to me.

Inside, it’s quiet. Well, it’s early on a Monday evening, so I’m not expecting heaving crowds at the bar.

I look around, trying to work out what sort of pub theatre it is.

Oh yes. I’ve started classifying them!

From what I can tell, there are two sorts of pub theatres. There are the ones where the theatre is fully integrated into the life of the pub. Box Office is set up one end of the bar, and you’re expected to grab a drink and a seat before a bell summons you upstairs (see: The Hope & Anchor). The other keep their activities separated. Box offices are tucked away upstairs with their theatres. Pub patrons and different from theatre patrons, and never the twain will meet (see: The White Bear). Okay, that isn’t fair, I’m sure lots of theatre-goers pop down for a pint after the show, but we’re using broad brushstrokes to paint this picture here. I mean, at the Gate Theatre, a venue which is only above a pub in the very loosest sense, advises the audience that they can bring up a drink from the Prince Albert pub, no problem.

Then there’s the Vaulty Towers, which doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is, but is doing it anyway.

After a quick glance around, I pinned the Rosemary Branch as a one that is divided by a common venue. The door to the theatre (with a helpful large sign handing over it) is closer to the entrance that the bar.

The steps that lurk behind are lit by lined by faerie-lights and old posters, with more signage at the top leading you through the next set of doors (propped open by a heavy bust). If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Rosemary Branch, it’s the signage. It’s everywhere. From arrows guiding you in the right direction, to politely worded messages to advising you to keep away (“Dressing Room. Artists Only”). I liked it immediately. I mean, you know how much bad signage (or even worse: no signage) irritates me, so seeing it done well is incredibly pleasing.

“Do I give my name?” I asked the young lady positioned behind the box office counter.

“How many is it?”

“Just the one.”

With a nod she handed me a small admission token.

“We’ll ring the bell when it’s time to go in,” she says, indicating that I can wait in the next room.

There’s already a small group of young people in what I presume is the pub’s function room. There’s a bar on one end, with a glass drinks dispenser waiting on it, and a stack of glasses nearby. Massive sash windows line up on two sides, and the spaces in between are filed with plants and Tiffany-style lamps. There’s sofas, and armchairs, and a fireplace. It’s a lovely room.

“They didn't even ask my name,” whispers one young person when his friend arrives. By the sounds of it, she’s connected with the show. “They just gave me a ticket.”

“Probably means it hasn't sold very well,” she says with a shrug.

“Oops,” he giggles.

But more people arrive and soon there are little gatherings dotted around the room.

Soon enough the bell sounds and it’s the tinkliest little bell I’ve ever heard. So tinkle it must have brought a few faeries back to life all by itself last night.

I show the woman on the door my admission pass, but she just waves me through, not taking it from me. I still have in it my coat pocket.

“You can sit anywhere,” she says. “But it’s best to sit at the front.”

Choices, choices!

The Rosemary Branch theatre is very small. A true black box. But the unrelenting darkness of the walls is broken up by strings of lights on the ceiling and mismatched cushions on the chairs, give the room the feel of a Bedouin tent. Or at least an overpriced yurt at Glastonbury.

You know my feelings about the front row. But I took her advice to heart and sat in the third.

There’s a fine rake to the seating here, and the third row is just fine.

My row, and the two in front, fill up and I begin to regret my seat choice. The chairs are very close together and my shoulder is getting smushed into a wooden plank nailed to the wall.

Four short plays. All written by women. All acted by women too. All excellent, but with two major standouts to my tired eyes. Tiger Mum by Eva Edo and HoneyBEE by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. Both one-woman shows. Both performed by their writers. But otherwise completely different. A mother looking to protect her son against the world, and a millennial trying to find her place in it. A plaid shirt, and a sequined jumpsuit. A bus stop, and a festival.

Keyed up by exciting lady-theatre, I get up to leave. The rest of the audience looks like they are intent on hanging around. They all know someone in the production and are determined to celebrate.

I squeezed myself between their excited hugs and out I go, walk by the canal, tube it home, and am in bed by 10pm with a cup of tea and a chocolate éclair from Paul.

Life doesn’t get much better than that, my friend, now does it?

No, wait. It does. Apparently the Shrill Voices Showcase wasn’t a one off. It’s part of a series. Which means now I have an opportunity to go back to the faeries’ yurt… next year.

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Well Sarki

"What does a free drink mean?" asks someone in the queue at the bar.

Sounds like a stupid question, but it had been one I'd been asking myself.

"I don't know," comes the reply. "They just said a free drink from the bar."

"So, wine? Or like... can I get a double?"

Silence. I could only presume the answer came in the form of a shrug.

I looked up at the menu. There was wine. And beer. Coke in all its variants. Water. And spirits. But no indication of which ones could be requested in exchange for the small drinks token we had been given.

I'm not a wine, or a beer drinker. And I only really go for the fizzy stuff when there's nothing else on offer. As for water, I've got some in my bar. And spirits don't tend to be included in these offers. Should I wait it out to find out?

"Can everyone move to the other side?" calls the man behind the bar. The queue shuffles its way to the other end of the bar.

I go with them.

The queue is long. Really long. And I decide the thing I want, the thing I really want, is to get out of the queue and take some photos of this venue. That's the real reason I'm there after all.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't at the Cutty Sark to find a new drinking hole. I was there to get some ship-action going on. It's not every day you get to wander around beneath the bow of a nineteenth-century clipper.

I think the good folks at Royal Museums Greenwich are fully aware of this, so open the doors a full 45 minutes before the show starts.

I had missed out on this precious wandering time because of my inability to ever judge how long a journey on the DLR will take. I rocked up with only ten minutes to go, and I spent half of them standing outside, gazing in rapture and trying to work out how to possibly take a photo that would capture this ship in all its beauty. Did I want the corner of the pub in the shot to show off the surrealness of seeing a ship there? Or perhaps have the masts stark against the night sky?

Nothing seemed right, and I just had to accept that I am not a photographer and you'll just have to live with that, as I do.

When I came to realise this, there was nothing left to do but go inside, give my name, pick up the drinks token and...

"Can I get one of these?" I asked, indicating the stack of programmes on the desk.

Turns out I absolutely could, because they were absolutely free.


After that, I was pointed in the direction of a staircase that would take me down, deep into the bowels of the earth, the hull of the ship descending with me.

At first I didn't see it. The theatre. But as the smooth curves of the dark ship fell away from me, I spotted it. The seats first. Rows of them. And then the stage. Small. Nothing more than a backcloth and a platform stuck in front of it. Like one belonging to the travelling players of a forgotten era.

I was there for Pirates of Penzance, which as shows go for watching under the looming shadow of a sailing ship, is pretty unbeatable.

"If it's terrible, we can leave in the interval," says a man sitting behind me.

His companions don't sound so sure about this deal of his,

"Apparently, it's an operetta, not an opera," he soothes. "So hopefully it's not terrible."

The musicians stroll down the big staircase, dressed in full pirate get up. With embroidered waistcoats, tricorner hats and everything.

That gets an audible reaction from the row behind me, and coos of appreciation replace the grumbles of discontent.

A few minutes later, it's the turn of the cast, the ladies wrestling with large skirts as they make their way down the endless steps and cross the huge space towards the stage.

It's my second Pirates of the year. When I started out on this marathon, I never considered this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, would be the one to steal the Most Viewed category. I figured that honour would go to some Shakespeare or other, but here we are, serving up those corny Cornish Pirates, and I've loving every minute of it. And where Wilton's was all boys in skirts, this version has meta staging and operatic trills. Because while Pirates may be an operetta, and not an opera, the company performing it, The Merry Opera, are, as the name implies, of the opera, and not the operetta, variety.

When the cast hurried back up to the stairs for the interval, in a manner which must be doing wonders for their cardiovascular fitness, the audience headed to the bar.

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

Abandoning the queue, I roamed the full length of the ship up towards the viewing platform, from where you get a real sense of the scale of the thing, with all the people below scurrying about like little insects.

But what really drew my attention, was what lay below. A chorus of figureheads, bursting out of their display like a battalion of avenging angels. Even the most cherubically cheeked among them rendered demonic by the shadows cast by their companions.

I took a few photos, but their sinister glares get the best of me and chased me back to my seat.

The free drinks must have done the trick because the audience was noticeably more excited than I had left them.

To be honest, I'd been a little concerned about the lack of humming among the older male contingent. When the good ship G&S doesn't bring about some humming among the audience, you know something's gone wrong. But I neededn't of worried. A few rival hummers started from opposing rows in what I can only describe as a hum-off. But before a winner could be declared, they were both blasted out of the competition by a woman letting out a shrill peal of opera-warbles.

"Wow," says her neighbour, sounding a little unsure about the whole thing.

Taking this as encouragement, she does it again. And again. But the repetition does nothing to widen her repertoire. It's always the same couple of notes, repeated in impressively parrot-like fashion.

People are starting to look around. But this newly acquired audience only encourage her.

Just as I wonder whether I should applaud, the band reappear.

We were ready to start the second act.

Dastardly deeds and even worse word-play follows. True love triumphs. The Major General out-raps the cast of Hamilton when he goes double-speed. Pirates are marked out as the very naughty children they are. Everyone gets a touch sentimentally patriotic. And I get my fix of boys in eyeliner.


Oh, and the man who thought that offered his group the opportunity to leave in the interval? Yeah, they came back for act two. I guess operettas aren't necessarily terrible after all.

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Feet of Klee

We've known each other a while now. I would say that we've grown pretty close over the last three months or so, wouldn't you? I've admitted some pretty shameful stuff to you, and you've... well, you've read it. I think we've built up a relationship of sorts. One based on mutual respect and affection. A bond of trust has formed between the two of us.

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Confused Hearts and Coronets

I'll say this for the marathon. It's transformed my friendships. Gone are the days when the people I love treated me like a fellow human being, one who can get up, get dressed, and arrive on time at a shared destination. Over the past few months they've all come to realise that this year, I'm basically a spreadsheet in a dress. What to spend time with me? Put your name down in the appropriate column.

They've also all changed the way they talk to me. They don't ask how I am anymore, they ask what I've seen. The answer is pretty much the same anyway.

And as each theatre trips begins to merge into the one before, they've all stepped up to fill in the gaps in my rapidly diminishing brain-power.

"I'm in Pret by exit 2, which is the right exit for the Coronet," messages Helen.

That's the kind of meet-up message I like right now. Clear. Concise. And requiring no thought processes at all from my end. At Notting Hill Gate, I followed the signs, left by exit two, practically fell into Pret, and found Helen.

"I was there, but I had to leave," she explains as I offer her a Nutella taiyaki. "There was a table, which I presumed was the box office. But when I said my friend had booked the tickets, they said I could wait. But there weren't any chairs? So... I left."

Replenished by our pastry fishes, we make our way to The Print Room at The Coronet, just a few doors down.

"Has it had something done recently?" asks Helen.

I have to admit ignorance. It did look very shiny and fancy though. Bigger than I had imagined. With bright paintwork and gleaming windows, and those narrow wooden doors that you find on old West End theatres.

"It does look very fresh," agrees Helen.

It smells fresh too. Or floral at least. Was it the small bunch of flowers on the tasteful side table? That didn't seem likely. Real flowers haven't smelt of anything since 1974.

"Did they... spray perfume around?" I ask the world in general.

The world doesn't have an answer for me.

"Look at this," says Helen, pointing out a hanging display in the middle of the foyer and proving her worth once again as an excellent marathon companion. Always pointing things out for me to photograph, and then getting out of the way of the shot with seamless grace. Still not entirely sure what the display was, but I liked it.

I liked everything about The Print Room's foyer. And there was lots to enjoy. From the black and white tiled floor, to the cushions neatly tucked up against the marble stairs, to the...

"What is that? Is that a ruff?"

"It is some kind of ruff," agrees Helen, going over to inspect the mannequin wearing a lacy collar. Now I love a ruff. I even own a ruff. But no one in the entire world appreciates a ruff like Helen appreciates a ruff. If there was a magazine called Ruff It, Helen would be the editor.

The presence of a mannequin wearing a lacy collar in the foyer of The Print Room was not explained. But remains only one of a thousand mysterious objects we discovered on the way to our seats.

Up the stairs was a wood-panelled corridor, curving around the auditorium.

Freesheets were balanced on tiny side tables, weighed down by books and other assorted items. There were decanters, and tea lights, and even a globe.

"Says a lot about Notting Hill that they can leave all these knick-knacks lying around," she says, as she acts the photographer's assistant, repositioning a flyer into a more eye-pleasing position.

"Wow... that's... wow." I might not have said it out loud, but I was definitely thinking that as we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the auditorium. It was like Stratford East and Wilton's Music Hall had somewhere found their way to each other across Tower Hamlets, and made a baby together.

Still gaping in awe, I show our tickets to the usher.

"Right, so if you go up the stairs until row f..." she says before giving instructions so detailed I was beginning to think Helen might have called ahead to warn them about me.

"She knows we're not Notting Hill natives," I whisper to Helen as we make our way up the stairs. "Probably thinks we'll eat our tickets when she's not looking."

We squeeze our way into row f.

"Christ, there's like... zero leg room," I say, as my knees bash against the seat in front.

"Wow, there really isn't," said Helen, managing to somehow tuck herself neatly into the seat next to me, despite having a full two inches on me height-wise.

Not having legroom is not something I encounter all that often, considering I'm all of five-foot-three (and a half, but I don't want to be one of those twats who adds fractions to their height, or their age).

I wriggle around, trying to get my legs to fit, but it isn't happening. I was going to have to make peace with one knee or the other getting smooshed that evening. I decided to sacrifice my right knee, and twisted slightly to the left.

In an attempt to distract myself from the protests of my already suffering right knee, I take a photo of the stage. "It's just all black," I say as I inspect the image.

"Even with you new camera?"

Helen has had to sit through a lot of explanations about my I love my Pixel 2. "Even with my new camera," I sigh.

"Do you think that's a backdrop, or a curtain?" asks Helen, referring to the black cloth that's messing with my photos.

"You think there's a whole stage behind there? That would make this place enormous."

"It is a big stage," says Helen, looking around. "For not that many seats."

"Good for dance, I suppose."

"Yeah... do they do a lot of dance?"

I couldn't answer. I have no idea. We were there for a dance performance. The Idiot by Saburo Teshigawara & Rihoko Sato. But apart from that, I had no idea the level of their dance programming.

"What was this place?" she asks. "Was it like a cinema or...?"

Again, I don't know.

"You mean you don't research every theatre carefully, giving all the stats in a neat sidebar?"

"No. That's Wikipedia."

Having now read the freesheet, I can tell you that The Print Room started in a former, well, print room and since moved into The Coronet. Hence The Print Room at The Coronet. But still squished in my seat, I didn't know that. I don't think it's just the late nights and constant bombardment of theatre that's making me dim. I think maybe, just maybe, I was always a little bit ignorant.

The lights dim, and stay dim, long after the start of the show. Dancers scurry through the darkness, leaving only a hint of shadow and footsteps to show where they'd been.

"When the lights didn't come up, I did wonder if it'd stay like that for the whole performance," said Helen as we made our way out.

"God yes. I felt like one of those annoying old people at the Opera House who complain that modern ballets are too dark."


"I was trying to convince myself that if I can't see anything, it was because the choreographer didn't want us to see anything, but then also... I did kinda wonder if something was broken."

"And there was someone frantically flicking switches backstage. Yes, I thought that too."

"What is that?" I ask as we pass a knick-knacked alcove in the foyer. "Is it a bar or..."

"I don't think it's a bar," says Helen.

"Well then, what is it?" We duck in to examine the paintings and a little figurine of a beetle lurking within. "I mean I like it..."

"I like it to."

"But what is it?"

"No idea," says Helen. "And these cushions... they're everywhere," she says, pointing to a black and white cushion portraying a close of a vintage looking face. They were everyone. On chairs and sofas, yes. But also on the staircase and the floor.

"They look like those expensive candles you can buy in Liberty."

"Yes. And plates and things too. Fornasetti," she says.

"Pornasetti more like," I say, feeling more than a little smug about my pun. "They always look a little bit dirty." Not the ones in The Print Room, mind you. Very PG in their cushion choices, I must say.

I frown. "Was that piece based on the Dostoevsky, do you think?"

"I have no idea."

"I haven't read it."

"Nor have I, but I always think with these things, when art is transferred between medias, you shouldn't have to read the source text, It should stand up on its own."

"I don't even know who the characters were. I'm pretty sure he was in love with the woman in the satin skirt."

"Did you? I thought she was a figment of his imagination."

That hadn't even occurred to me. "Okay. But who was the other one? His mother? His sister? His wife?"

"They didn't really interact enough to demonstrate a relationship."

"I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it. But like... as an abstract dance work in drama costumes."

"I don't have an opinion. And you know me, I always have an opinion..."

It's true. She does.

Not for the first time, I'm grateful for my marathon being about describing the experience I have at the theatre, rather than reliant on reviewing what I see. I don't have to have an opinion. Opinions are not obligatory. So, I'm not gonna have one.


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