The Curious Case of Currywurst and Cold Chips

A few days ago I was debating whether I would tell you if I ever got stood up. Turns out I absoluetly would, because it's happened. Your gurl has been stood up. Although I'm not sure it counts as a true standing up if you get advance notice. Okay, I got cancelled on. Surely that is bad enough?

Anyway, cue me contacting every single person I have ever met in my entire life to dangle the offer of a free ticket to a new musical in front of them and it is Allison who takes the bait. We haven't had a theatre outing together since Valentine's day, when she ditched her husband to come to the Donmar with me, and I think we can all agree three months is far too long to wait for a second date. But I can't complain. Not when Allison is stepping in the rescue me from embarrassing solitude once more. That's true friendship, that is.

We meet outside the theatre, pop in to pick up our tickets, and then head out for the really important part of the evening: dinner.

"Where do you wanna go?" asks Allison.

I'd suggested Borough Market and leftover cupcakes from my work's bake sale in my tempting messages that afternoon, but the situation has since developed and I have my eye on the Mercato Metropolitano marketplace on the other side of the road.

"Wow, that looks intense," says Allison as we look through the open doors at the long queue getting searched by multiple security guards.

"Let's try the next door," I suggest. In my earlier recognisance walk-by, I'd spotted that the last door seemed to be the most lax on the whole security-thing.

We try the next door, and get our bags checked.

It’s Friday night and the place is packed.

Every chair, table, and possible flat surface, is occupied. But curiously, each of the stalls is utterly devoid of queues.

The two of us walk around, trying to decide what we want to eat.

“Turkish German?” says Allison. “That’s a weird combination.”

“That is a weird combination… but oh, look! They have currywurst! I love currywurst!”

Allison has never had currywurst before, so it becomes my personal mission to educate her on the joys of sausage in curry sauce, and I order to.

“I’ll buy you a drink,” offers Allison as I shove my card in to pay.

“We have drinks vouchers,” I say, pulling them out of my pocket to show her.

“It’s just like a real date,” she laughs.

“I have cupcakes too, remember. I know how to show a girl a good time.”

We’re handed one of those buzzer things, which I immediately pass off to Allison. I can’t be dealing with those things. They make me anxious.

We find somewhere to sit down. Well, Allison finds somewhere to sit down. I balance precariously on a table. And we wait for the black box to beep.

Ten minutes later we’re still waiting.

“I thought this was place was supposed to be fast food,” says Allison.

“Do you think we should go and ask?”

We do. Or rather, Allison does.

“Two minutes,” says the guy in the stall. Behind him we see the cook running around, busily making our currywurst.

Five minutes later, it arrives. On two plates.

“Err, can we have it to go?” I ask, looking around at the complete lack of free tables to sit two large plates on.

After much huffing and puffing, we get the currywurst in a to-go container.

I immediately open mine and tuck in.

“The chips are cold,” I say.

Oh well. We head back to the Southwark Playhouse and set up camp on one of the small tables outside. Perfectly positioned to be able to see what is going on in the bar, and primed to launch ourselves inside when the doors open.

It’s also the best possible set up to show off to Allison my ability to put away vast quantities of food in a very short space of time.

“Oh my…” says Allison, as I use my last chip to mop up a dollop of mustard.

We both look at her dish. it’s still half full.

“Don’t worry, we still have…” I check my phone. “Five whole minutes. No rush.”

But the doors are open and the crowds in the bar are starting to go in.

Allison admits defeat and we head inside. Slowly. Currywurst doesn’t sit lightly on the stomach.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue. Or rather, everywhere seems to be part of the queue. Within seconds Allison and I are jostled apart. I reach out my hand to here, hoping to pull her through the crowds, but we’re too far away. I let myself be swept forward towards the doors of the theatre.

It’s press night tonight and the smaller of the Southwark’s Playhouse’s two venues, The Little, is packed.

“Where shall we sit?” I ask Allison as we finally manage to find one another.

There aren’t many options left.

“Shall we try the other side?”

Somehow, the good people of the Southwark Playhouse have managed to fit multiple rows of benches on three sides of a tiny stage in here. We pick out way around the tiny stage until we make it to the other side. There’s some free spots round here. In the front row.

Now, we all know how I feel about the front row, but I think we’ll be safe. We’re here for a musical. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, no less. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of show that will have interaction.

But then, one never knows with theatre. I mean… I’ve told you about the immersive Hamlet, right?

I put on my best “don’t talk to me face,” and settle in.

The cast come out. They’re carrying instruments. They strike up a tune. It’s folksy and earnest. Which, if that description sounds familiar to you, is because I used it to describe the music in The Hired Man. But where the storyline of that musical got lost in the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, there’s no chance of that in this tiny, intimate space.

Sitting in the front row, with nothing before me but these musicians bouncing around and strumming their tunes, I feel like I’m in some West Country pub, listening to the local band singing about the town’s resident folk hero - forever drowned in legend - the truth of his tale long forgotten.

And because it is a legend, we don’t have to worry about the silly matter of logic. Or even why the American writer’s tale, originally set in Baltimore (yeah, I did my research - I’ve read the Wikipedia page), has been moved to Cornwall.

A large puppet is carried onto the stage. It’s Benjamin. His father gawps and him, and so do we, as we all puzzle the impossibility of such a birth.

No matter. The story moves on and so do we.

“It’s really good!” says Allison as the house lights go up for the interval. She sounds surprised.

“Shall we get a drink?” I say, showing her the drinks vouchers that come as part of the press night experience.

The queue in the bar is intense, but we stick close to each other and soon make it to the front.

“What can we get for these?” Allison asks the lady behind the bar.

“Anything!” comes the joyful reply. “Beer. Wine. Spirits.”

Well! I plump for a Gin and tonic, cos I’m well sophisticated and shit. Allison goes for a beer with a very romantic sounding name that I immediately forget. “It feels right for the show,” she explains. I hadn’t been the only one picking up the pub-vibes then.

A few minutes later, there’s an announcement that it’s time to go back in.

“Can we take our drinks do you think?” I ask, looking with concern at the large quantity of G&T left in my glass. I may be a trougher when it comes to food, but downing a large alcoholic drink in one has never been part of my skill-set.

“Yeah, they just said,” says Allison. I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.

We go back in and settle in our seats, listening to the conversation flowing around us.

“It’s really gooood.”

“It’s amazzzzzing.”

“Well done, darling.”

I love press nights. So much audience enthusiasm as everyone congratulates their friends and themselves.

“Do you want a tissue?” someone in the row behind us asks her friend. “I saw it last night and the second act is a bit of a weeper.”

Oh dear.

I mean: yay. I have a hankering for a show that makes me cry those big snotty tears. But also, I’m wearing a lot of eyeliner today.

Thank god I’m here with Allison. She won’t judge me if I get my face covered with black tears.

The sniffs start quickly. Everywhere around me people are touching their fingers to the corners of their eyes. Soon there are nose wipes taking over as sniffs are no longer affective against this onslaught of emotions.

There’s something in my eye. I blink. That was a mistake. The tears I’d been so carefully holding back start to spill. I press the back of my hand against my cheek, hoping to get rid of them before my makeup melts.

The cast bows.

We stare at them. Clapping because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Our minds still not fully caught up with what’s just happened.

A few people stagger to their feet.

Gradually, more join them.

Allison gets up.

I follow her.

The cast start up again. A few people try to clap along with the beat, but the rest of us are too spent for such a thing. We fall back into our seats, crying happy tears as the performers play on.

The final note fades away. Grinning, the cast disappear. But we don’t stop clapping. Can’t stop clapping. This is it.

The cast aren’t coming back, but we still aren’t stopping.

Minutes later, they return for one final bow and are hands are allowed to still, the business of showing our appreciation now satisfied.

“I counted five people crying during the infirmary scene,” says the woman sitting behind us. “I love that,” as we all gather our belongings together.

Allison and I quietly make our way out. I can’t talk. Tears are still choking my throat.

It wasn’t the infirmary scene though. I mean, if you’re going to go, doing so in the arms of a handsome young man who adores you doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It was what came after that really got me. The diminishment of the self. The shrinking of Benjamin’s mind alongside his body. The memories fading. It comes to us all. Eventually.

As I trudge my way back home, I remember something. I hadn’t given Allison her cupcake. Shit. I had completely forgotten.

I’m a terrible date.

Read More

Demon Theatre of Fleet Street

I thought I was well past the point where I was able to shock my coworkers with my theatre-going, but the expression on their faces as I wrap my scarf around my neck and breezily say that I'm just popping out to watch a play tells me that I've hit a new low.

Turns out, slipping into an empty seat at the back to catch the matinee in your own theatre is one thing, but running down to Bridewell Theatre in order to squeeze a short play into your lunch break is quite another.

Oh well. Doesn't matter. I'm already halfway down Farringdon Street and too out of breath to worry about my rapidly deteriorating reputation in the office.

I haven't been to the Bridwell Theatre before, but I've seen the signs for it, so I'm not entirely surprised when I step out of the smog of grey suits on Fleet Street and into a quiet little side-street that looks like it's pitching itself as a location for this Christmas' glossy Dicken's adaptation.

Two ladies chat outside the front door to the theatre, but apart from that, it's entirely deserted.

I'm guessing lunch-time theatre can't really compete with M&S sandwiches in the life of a city worker.

I'm up for it though. A 45-minute play in the middle of the day sounds great. It's just a pity that this place is too far from my work for me to ever justify coming here outside of my marathon. Best make the most of it.

Huh. This place is not nearly as exciting looking inside. After a brief interlude involving floor to ceiling tiling, those old Victorian stones have given way to white walls and grotty floors.

But no matter. There's a good old fashioned hole-in-the-wall box office. It even has a circular speaker thing set into the glass. The metal surround is inscribed with the directive to: SPEAK HERE. I do, giving my surname, and I'm handed a small entrance token in exchange.

They are small. And laminated. There's a picture of a sandwich on the front (cucumber on wholemeal) and a poorly hyphenated set of terms and conditions on the back. I'm disappointed. Somehow I had got into my head that the Bridewell was connected to the printing industry, but I couldn't imagine any proper printer producing this sort of nonsense.

To be fair, that connection may exist nowhere outside of my own fuzzy memories, and no be based on anything even approaching reality. In which case, the tokens are just fine. And cucumber sandwiches are totally ace. But like... not on brown bread. Don't be gross, people. No one wants that shit in their lives. It should be white bread or nothing when it comes to cucumbers. And plenty of butter. The good stuff. Yeo Valley, or Kelly Gold if you must.

"The house will open at five to one," says the man behind the window. "We'll ring a bell."

That's only a couple of minutes away. I better start exploring.

I follow the signs down to the bar.

Oh, blimey. That's not what I expected. There I was, traipsing down the white-walled staircase, never knowing that the basement bar was lurking underneath like the Phantom's lair. Bare brick walls. Metal beams holding up curved arches. And there, squatting between the tables like an old man waiting for someone to buy him a pint is, oh my god, is that a printing press?

I fucking love a printing press. I’m always trying to drop hints to our printers that they should invite me around for a tour, but they are doing the absolute mostest to change the conversation to one of paper stock, or types of fold, which I suppose is also good.

I go over to have a proper look at it.

I suppose it could be a printing press. If what you're printing is shirts and by press you mean, wash out the dirt. They're washing machines. I'm in an old laundry.

Oh.

I'm beginning to think I really did imagine the whole printing thing. Which is worrying.

Still, it is nice down here. I do like old machines, even if their purpose is to remove ink rather than print it. I like that you can see how they work. This wheel turns, that cog rotates, then this plate lowers, yadda, yadda, yadda, and your socks are clean!

It's surprisingly busy down here. All the tables are full.

I'm trying to work out how many of these people are here for a sneaky pint during their lunch hour. But none of these people look like the type to work around here.

There's less in the way of suits than I would expect. And far more anoraks than is reasonable.

I feel like I've somehow stumbled group in their pre-meet for a walking tour of the Lake District, rather than a bunch of city workers taking a short rest-bite from their heady day propping up capitalism.

There's a rustle of Goretex as they all stumble to their feet and make towards the door.

They must have heard something I didn't because the queue to get into the theatre is starting and if I don't hurry up and join it, I'm going to be stuck right at the back.

Back up the stairs, through the door by the box office, and via a small foyer taken up by some rather fetching blue curtains, and we're into the theatre.

It's a standard black box, with raked seating, and a rather fantastical lighting rig - meal bars jutting off at all sorts of wonderful angles. Each side of the space is lined with slim metal columns, the type you'd find on an old factory floor. I rather like it.

It takes a while for everyone to settle.

There are considerably more people here than I could ever have expected. Lunchtime theatre is clearly a thing, and I feel like I've been missing out. Someone needs to tell all the pub-theatres in Islington, because I want to get in on this action.

After five months in marathon-mode, even 90-minutes-no-interval is starting to feel like a chore. With a standard 7.30pm start, you're still not getting out before 9pm. And then there's the journey home, and by the time you've got your coat off, put the kettle on, and shoved all the clothes off of your duvet, accomplishing the coveted In-Bed-By-Ten prize is a bit of a challenge. If you ask me (and I'm sure you are), 45 minutes is the perfect length for a play.

I didn't know anything about this one, but with such a short run time, there wouldn't be much room to go wrong.

Even so, Stanley Grimshaw Has Left The Building manages to pack it in: family tensions, false allegations of violence, missed messages, Elvis impersonations, and not one - but two - twists, before the clock runs out. There's even a reverse of the man-sends-his-inconvenient-female-relative-to-the-madhouse trope, which was very pleasing.

I would credit those involved, but there wasn't a freesheet to be found. Which if the Bridewell really did have a connection to the printing industry would be really fucking embarrassing for them.

Now, I have to know - where did I get that idea from?

As I hurry up Farringdon Street on my way back to work, I quickly Google it.

"Housed in a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian building, St Bride Foundation was originally set up to serve the burgeoning print and publishing trade of nearby Fleet Street, and is now finding a new contemporary audience of designers, printmakers and typographers who come to enjoy a regular programme of design events and workshops."

They even have a library dedicated to printing and its associated arts.

Oh, Bridewell Theatre. Dedicated to the print trade and you can't even put together a freesheet. For shame. For shame!

Read More

A toast to Walnut Whips

Toast tonight! Nope, not my post-theatre dinner plans (although they may end up being that). I’m at The Other Palace for Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Which is great.

Except, I don’t know who the fuck Nigel Slater is. He must be very important, as nowhere on The Other Palace’s website do they actually stoop to telling us who he is or what he does.

Now, I write a lot of show copy. A lot of show copy. I don’t have the exact numbers to hand, but I would say I bash out marketing-words for at least 100 shows a year. And I’m trying very hard to think of someone who is famous enough not to require a little intro. You know the kind of thing: “the visionary contemporary choreographer X,” or “the cult-leader Z,” or perhaps “the Austrian former-artist and political rising star Y.” We actually have a mega-celeb involved in one of our upcoming shows, and even he gets an intro citing the number of Grammys that he’s won. So, I’m trying really hard to think of someone more famous than him. Someone who requires no introduction. Beyoncé perhaps? But even she would probably get the “legend who requires no introduction,” style treatment.

Which brings me back to: who is Nigel Slater? Is he more famous than Beyoncé? Is he the Queen?

I’ll admit to being incredibly ignorant, but I think I would have noticed if the actual Queen was called Nigel Slater.

This is what I get from the website about Nigel Slater: He has an autobiography. He grew up in England in the sixties. He ate food. He likes toast (?).

Well, I like toast too. So I think we’ll get along just fine.

I traipse my way down past the OG palace, making my way through all the fancy wide streets until I reach The Other Palace.

There’s security on the door. Or rather, in the door. Looming in the doorway and asking to check my bag.

He gives the contents of my bag a cursery glance and then I’m left standing in the foyer no sure what I should do.

I don’t need to go to the box office. I have an e-ticket.

If you fall into the overlap of the Venn diagram between People Who Follow This Blog and People Who Visit The Other Palace, this may surprise you. And you’re right. The Other Palace do indeed offer paper tickets. For a price. And it looks like I’ve found mine, because I was not prepared to pay £1.50 in order to get my hands on one. Call me a sell-out if you will, but even I have my limits on how far I’m going to go in pursuit of paper.

And anyway, they sell programmes here. So it’s not like I walking away entirely devoid of papery-goodness.

Or at least, I think they have programmes.

I can’t see any.

There’s no where to sit down, but I find a free spot over to the left of the entrance, and I use my spot to spy on the ticket checker. She has one of those little aprons that front of house staff sport when they have to deal with the business of change. But there are no programmes peeking out of the pocket.

Read More

Wheely need a change

I’m feeling a bit down at the moment. A trifle low. A touch, if I dare say it, sad.

I hate admitting it. Not because I’m ashamed or anything like that. It’s the reactions I get to these statements that keep me quiet. I don’t know how it is for you, but when I tell people that things are a bit sucky in Maxine-land, they either brush it off with a series of dismissive noises, or they take the exact opposite approach, going into hyper alert, as if I’m about to off myself right then and there in front of them. When what I really want is for them to pat me on the head, agree that everyone is terrible, and tell me that it’s all going to be okay, because they are going to beat up everyone who has ever wronged me.

Okay, I hear it. You’re right. That’s not the way to handle things.

I can beat up my own damn people.

In the meantime, as it is mental health awareness week, I’m going to admit to you that the marathon is really getting to me at the moment.

It’s the relentlessness of the whole thing.

It just goes on and on and on.

For nearly five months, I’ve been going to the theatre almost every night. And then filling in every free moment in between shows with writing about them. Thousands of words. Hundreds of thousands of words. Three whole novels’ worth of words. I’m not even kidding. No wonder at least half of them are misspelt.

And, you know, it’s a bit lonely.

I don’t mean the going to the theatre part. Because I’m very often not alone. And, as someone pushing the limits on how far one can sit on the introvert scale, going to the theatre by myself never bothered me anyway. It’s the loneliness of the marathon itself. The fact that I am entirely on my own in this enterprise. The lovely people that accompany me on my trips don’t have to spend the evening desperately trying to recall fragments of conversations, or their intervals making notes on their phones. They don’t have to give up their lunchbreaks to writing blog posts. And their weekends to emailing PR companies. They don’t live within the confines of a spreadsheet.

I sometimes think about it akin to being jetted off on a solo mission to Mars. Thousands of people will be involved in the enterprise, but in the end, when it comes right down to it, no matter who is on the other end of the shuttle’s radio, they’re up there, all by themselves. But at least that lonesome soul goes in the knowledge that they have a place in the history books set aside from them. Somehow I don’t think they’ll be a ticker-tape parade waiting for me at the end of this year.

Anyway, all this maudlin moping is just a build up to saying that I was after something different. Something I hadn’t seen before. Something to shake me out of my funk.

So, I’m going to the circus.

Well, I’m actually going to Shoreditch Town Hall. But I’ll be watching circus. The new Barely Methodical show: SHIFT. I’m pretty stoked.

I even bought my ticket. With money.

Mainly because I just couldn’t face dealing with a press person long enough to ask for comps, but still.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love press people. I love especially theatre press people. They do a job that I in no way ever want to have to do (again). But putting in ticket requests requires being nice. And I’m in no mood to be nice right now. Wait. No. I don’t mean that. I am nice. Most of the time. I suppose what I mean is: positive. Asking for tickets requires a certain level of bouncy cheer and enthusiasm that I am not capable of at this moment in time. I’m too busy embracing my inner Eeyore to use the required amount of exclamation marks in an email.

Still, even after I’d made the decision to lay down my debit card in the pursuit of another check mark in my marathon spreadsheet, it didn’t mean I wasn’t in full money-saving mode.

And as I analysed the seating plan for tonight’s performance, I realise that the cheapest seats are all gone. Greyed out. Not there.

Dammit.

I click through a few more dates until I see them. There. Thursday night has some. Up in the balcony. Well, that was no good. I’d already made plans for Thursday. Oh well. Second price down it was then. I picked my seat and bought the ticket and then…

Shit.

I hadn’t clicked back to Tuesday. My ticket was for Thursday.

As soon as the confirmation email landed in my inbox, I forwarded it onto Shoreditch Town Hall with an abject apology and a begging request for them to exchange it.

Nine minutes later, it was done. Ticket exchanged. Followed by a friendly command to enjoy the show.

Ah. Now that’s the stuff.

While I respect press people, it’s admin staff that I really admire. They are the real heroes in theatre. The ones who turn chaos into order, dreams into reality, and an outing into an experience. I would lay down my cloak on the wet ground before them if they hadn’t already organised for building services to sort out that dangerous looking puddle outside the front door.

I could almost forgive them for having e-tickets.

Not that this stopped me from heading right over to the small podium positioned just inside the very fancy foyer of the town hall to absolutely double check that printed tickets were not a thing that would be happening in my life tonight.

They’re not. But I take it with relative good grace, and do not in any way express contempt for the future of this planet we call home.

They do have freesheets though.

There’s a stake of them on the counter. I take one and go off to explore.

As former town halls go, Shoreditch must be on the more sophisticated end of the scale.

Where Battersea Arts Centre is all collages and finger paintings and a bee strewn mosaic floor, Shoreditch has oversized faerie-lights and light up screens in place of posters and a more geometric approach to tiled flooring. They even have a ladies powder room, which I took to be the loos until I saw that they did actually have loos. Accessed through an entirely different entrance. The door to the powder door was blocked off, so in lieu of being able to ascertain its actual purpose, I’m going to imagine a line of vanity tables inside, complete with soft pink lighting and deeply padded chairs, where ladies touch up their makeup with fluffy puff-balls and leave a trail of lipstick-marks in their wake.

Read More

Bollocks to the Planet

I’m on my second trip to The Pleasance, and I’m on a mission.

You‘d think that after 118 theatre trips since the beginning of the year, I’d have any preciousness knocked out of me, but you’d be well wrong. There are some things I will never get used to not having: tickets and freesheets.

What can I say? I love paper.

Okay, not paper specifically (although, I do love paper. As anyone who has seen my desk at work would know. If you ever want to keep my occupied for a few hours, just drop my in a stationary shop and I’ll be quite content until you come back to drag me away).

I just love have something tangible to take away from an ephemeral experience. Something that I can place carefully in a box, store for years, and then on a sad, wet, Sunday afternoon, open the box, sit on the floor, and take them all out to relive every blissfully painful memory that they conjure up.

Mostly these come in the form of tickets, programmes, and freesheets, but sometimes I get a real score from my trips.

I have a couple of balls from the ball pit in Teh Internet Is Serious Business that accidently fell into my handbag (the fact that I left my bag sitting wide open in the front row is neither here nor there). I have the paper flower I made from the title page of my script in Hamlet (An Experience) (which I’m fairly certain I wasn’t meant to take home with me). I have the West End Company sweatshirt from my days working at Shrek: The Musical (not sure I’m actually meant to have this either). A playing card from Alice’s Adventures Underground. An empty crisp packet from Fatty Fat Fat. A single sequin from Wolfie. Heart-vision glasses from L’elisir d'amore (another thing I wasn’t supposed to take home). Badges from Come From Away and Cursed Child. And probably lots of other stuff that I can’t remember right now.

I’m a hoarder. And Marie Kondo is not welcome in my home.

I just love stuff.

Especially theatre stuff.

On my first trip to this Islington venue, I was offended, outraged, and incensed when I saw other audience members flashing their paper-tickets, with braggadocios swagger, to the ticket checker, while I had the indignity of being beeped through the doors by barcode.

This time, I’m not having it. I’m going to get my hands on a damn ticket.

I time my arrival perfectly.

They have two shows starting at 7.30pm. Mine isn’t until 7.45.

I push my way through the doors at 7.31pm. The first two shows should have cleared by now, meaning I will have plenty of time to plead my case at box office.

Oh. Okay. There’s a bit of a queue. No problem.

When I’d booked to see a show in the StageSpace I’d figured that it was a tiny venue. From my endless browsing of The Pleasance’s website, it looked as if they programmed comedy and whatnot there. Things that don’t require a lot of, well, stage space, and usually have limited seating to match. So when a marathon-qualifying show came up, on a Monday no less, I leapt on it quick-smart. By which I mean I logged it in my spreadsheet and promptly forgot about it until this morning and realised I should probably buy that ticket.

Alas, too late to have it sent to me. But no matter. I was here. I was in the queue. I was going to get that ticket. Or cry trying.

There are signs on the counter saying that the QR code in our confirmation emails will serve as a ticket. I purposely look away from them.

It’s my turn.

I give my name.

“Do you have a confirmation email?” asks the guy on box office.

“Umm,” I say, to fill space as I get out my phone. It’s all a performance. I know damn well that I have a confirmation email.

He clicks away on his computer as I scroll through my email.

“Yes,” I admit, finally giving in.

“You can use the QR code to get in,” he says. “You don’t need a ticket.”

“But I like tickets,” I say, my voice turning into a whine. “I hate QR codes.” You can’t lovingly store a QR code. You can’t alphabetize a QR code. You can’t pet and stroke and touch a QR code.

“We’re saving the planet,” he counters.

“Bollocks to the planet,” I say.

I don’t mean that. Not really. I recycle, when I remember. I don’t own a car, or a cat. I buy vintage clothes. I walk.

But fuck it. Can’t a girl get a ticket?

It’s not like they don’t have them. They can’t plead planet-saving when other people are walking around with the damn things. What does a girl have to do to get her paper-loving hands on one?

The box officer gives me a strained smile. It’s no use. I’ve lost the battle.

I retreat to a spare corner to lick my paper-cuts and feel sorry for myself.

And then I see it. A big yellow machine tucked in next to the box office. A man comes up, sticks his card in, and then a streamer of tickets flies out into his hand.

It’s a ticket machine.

They have a fucking ticket machine. Spurting out tickets. To anyone who wants one.

I look at the box officer. I would have to walk right past him to get to it.

Do I dare?

I waver.

I really want a ticket.

I really don’t want him to see me.

I wimp out.

Of course I do.

I’m a coward.

A useless, ticketless, coward.

The crowds clear. Turns out the house opened late for one of the other shows.

There’s only a few of us left now.

A family try to head up the stairs. A ticket checker glances at their (paper) tickets. “Oh,” he says. “This one hasn’t opened yet. Two or three minutes,” he says, sending them away.

The older lady in the group stays on the stairs.

Her daughter tries to call her down with the promise of a drink, but the older lady shakes her head. She wants to stay. Make sure she’s first in the queue to get in.

“Mum,” says the daughter with a sigh. “You’re not going to miss it. There are like… six people here.”

But the older lady isn’t having it. She begins her slow creep back up the stairs.

Two or three minutes later, the ticket checker returns, and the six people traipse up the stairs towards the StageSpace.

I bring up my confirmation email and get present it for scanning, feeling like a failure.

I go in.

The StageSpace is pretty small. And dark. And kinda looks like a barn. Except smaller and darker.

It has those wooden vaulted beams that you see in fancy barn conversions.

And underneath, standing at the back of the stage, all hulking shoulder and blazing eyed, is... well, I don’t know who that is. I don’t have a freesheet to refer to.

As the show starts, he lumbers forward.

“Hello,” he says.

One person in the front row chances a “hello” back.

He grins. “Thank you,” he says. “Let’s try that again. Hello!”

I sink in my seat, I hate audience participation.

A second character comes out. Her hair is black. Her dress is too. She’s wearing a black velvet clock. I want to bury by face into it. And then snatch it off, before running all the way home. Wearing it.

She poses with a tea light, the tiny flickering light casting shadows across her face. She unfolds herself gently as she readies herself to tell her tale. What to do with the tea light though? She shoves it in the direction of an audience member, who duly relieves her of it.

She begins. Her story is a woeful one. And we are lucky to hear it.

The hulking fellow in the badly fitting suit turns out to be Podrick, and he will be assisting in the telling, playing all the characters in this tale of tragic beginning and eventual triumph. A journey that starts with a baby called Blanche, and ends with our heroine, the great Hertha Greenvail.

“Why do you wear black?” asks Podrick, in the guise of a homeless man the great Hertha meets on the street. He asks it as if the answer wasn’t perfectly obvious. “Is it that you’re frightened people will reject you like your mother did, and so you push them away before they get the chance?”

What the…?

Get out.

Right now. Out. Further out. All the way out. Keep going.

Nope. Not having it.

You’re wrong. So completely wrong, you wouldn’t even be able to fathom just how wrong you are.

Firstly: no. Secondly: how dare you. And thirdly: … look. You’re just wrong.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering to argue this. That’s how wrong you are.

I don’t push people away. I’m not insecure. I don’t fear rejection. It’s not like I’m some kind of useless… ticketless… cow- arghhh.

Hertha comes back on stage.

She’s not Hertha Greenvail. She’s Mia Borthwick. The writer. They’re taking the show up to Edinburgh and…

Oh god. I know this speech.

On cue, Podrick (still don’t know his name) capers out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage with an orange carrier bag from Sainsbury’s.

“Please give us you money,” he says, lumbering up to stairs and plonking himself in the back row, carrier bag open and read to receive funds.

I apologise to him on my way out.

“No, no, no, don’t worry,” he says, so sweetly that I’m immediately plunged into a hole of guilt.

Unfortunately the hole isn’t quite deep enough for me to turn out my purse into his carrier bag, but it’s def there. For sure.

Perhaps The Pleasance could donate the few pennies that they saved by not printing my ticket to them.

Read More

It reminds me, that it's not so bad, it's not so bad

I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not from London originally. I grew up in the arse-end of Somerset, in a house on-top of a hill, almost completely surrounded by woodland. Through the small gap in the trees we had a view of an 11th century church and, on a clear day, Glastonbury Tor. For the majority of my childhood, my only choice of footwear was my black school shoes, and my green wellies. I didn’t own a coat that wasn’t waxed until I was at university.

My village didn’t have a shop. There was the church, of course. Open one Sunday a month, and on Christmas Eve. A pay-phone at the bottom of the hill. A post-box. And cows. Lots of cows. During long summers, they would grow restless and break the fences, storming into our garden and baying at the moon until I was sent out in the middle of the night, a Barbor jacket slung over my pyjamas, to knock on the doors of the local farms, until I found the farmer responsible and convince him to come over, all grumbling and tired, and fetch his livestock home.

In the morning we would wake up to find the grass overturned by hoof prints. The flowers trodden down. And the dog in hysterics.

Still, the cows invading was better than when the hunt came through. They were technically banned from crossing our land (we were always a friend of the foxes), but they never listened. They would burst through the hedges, leaping over fences to cross our fields, leaving chaos and my mother’s curses in their wake.

Curses that would be repeated bloodily down the phone to the water company whenever our supply ran out, like clockwork, every August. Great lorry loads would inch their way up the tiny lane towards our house to deliver bottles of the stuff, to tide us over until the water tanks could be refilled.

The power-companies weren’t so easily bullied. We were often left without electricity for days on end whenever the lines went down.

Anyway, this long nostalgia-fest is just my way of telling you that there definitely wasn’t a theatre. I didn’t see my first proper, professionally-staged, play until I was fourteen, on a school trip.

I thought it was dreadful.

I didn’t go again until I was well in my twenties.

All this is to say, I don’t have only fond memories of going to the theatre as a child to draw on in this marathon.

When my native London friends get all misty-eyed over the Polka or the Half Moon, I’m left to counter with tales of the Bath and West show, or the local sheep dog trials.

As I arrive at the Unicorn Theatre this sunny Saturday afternoon, it is my first ever visit to the famous London Bridge venue.

After the pokiness of the Polka, I’m surprised by just have vast this place is. And modern. And bright.

Stepping through the automatic doors, I’m met by a photographic mural of swimming goldfish, which does rather make me wonder about the huge glass windows.

“Are you here for Dido?” an usher in a purple polo shirt asks me, in the gentle voice of someone who is used to a rather younger clientele.

I tell her that I am, and she directs me towards the box office.

She doesn’t look surprised that a grown up woman has turned up to a kids’ theatre without a little one in tow.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out why.

There aren’t any children here.

I look around as I wait to pick up my ticket.

This place is packed with grown-ups.

A few months ago, back when I was booking my ticket, I’d spent whole minutes debating whether the age guidance of 11 - adult was inclusive of adults, or if it had a cut off before the age of majority. But, by the looks of it, the fully-grown population of London have had no such qualms.

Now, I don’t know much about the story of Dido, it’s a long time since my (limited) classical education, but I presumed, it being a co-production with this most illustrious of kids’ theatres, that it would be suitable for children.

Finally, it’s my turn at the box office, and my eyes land on a sign balanced next to the freesheets. “Dido’s suicide will be presented on stage,” it reads.

Dido’s suicide?

What the hell is this opera?

I grab a freesheet, and a synopsis (which for some reason are two separate documents) and start reading.

Dido, queen of Carthage… blah blah blah… love… gods… rejection… kills herself. What the actual fuck.

Who wrote this thing?

Henry Purcell.

Oh. I mean…. Okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Henry Purcell. Adore him. The Baroque era is totally my jam. You can keep Stravinsky’s angry strings, and Britten’s boring drones. I love the orderliness of Handel and Vivaldi and Corelli and Bach. Well, not so much Bach. Johann Sebastian can do one, quite frankly. But the others, for sure.

Plus, after a sneaky non-marathon trip to catch the new Larbi piece at the Opera House, I had fallen in love again with Purcell’s Cold Song, and was keen to hear more.

But for an eleven year old?

I don’t know, man. This whole thing doesn’t strike me as particularly adapté aux enfants. And I say that as the type of pretentious wanker who can’t say ‘suitable for children’ in English like a normal person.

The house isn’t open yet, so I have time to wander around.

It’s really nice here.

There are vinyls on the floor instructing you JUMP and GIGGLE. I bet parents love the one saying HAVE AN ICE CREAM.

I manage to convince myself that if you perform all the actions, in the exact right way, and in the exact right order, a portal into some magical other world will open and take you off for a fantastic adventure.

I must have done it wrong, because when I gaze at the ceiling, by order of the vinyl message to LOOK UP, I see nothing but white up there.

I knew I should have bought an ice cream.

Oh well.

The house is open now, and we begin the long traipse up three floors worth of steps, past little balconies full of toys, and a deconstructed piano.

The ushers are all primed with freesheets and plastic cups, wet wipes, and indulgent smiles. Slightly strained looking indulgent smiles to be honest, as if they don’t quite know how to deal with a pile of opera-fans brandishing pink ENO tickets instead of their usual clientele.

Round the corner, through the door, and there it is. The Weston Theatre.

It’s big. Much bigger than I expected.

Much bluer too.

The seating is curved round a thrust stage, which goes back and back and back into the far distance. And I’m suddenly jealous of everyone who grew up in London and got to enjoy shows on this massive stage instead of splattering their way through cowpats in order to drag their dog away from a very aggressive badger.

The cast are already out there, warming up their voices and their bodies. One lady is sprawled on the floor, twisted her hips, first one way, then the other.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of set, but there are what looks like three conifer trees hanging from the lighting rig, and I am very excited about them.

As I lean forward to get a better look at these arboreal flying wonders, the pages of the freesheet cascade from my knee onto the floor.

I crouch down, off my seat, scrabbling to pick them up.

Damn booklet wasn’t stapled.

I shove the folded pages back together and stow it safely in my bag.

Just in time. The lights are dimming.

The harpsicord strikes up a tune. Oh, that’s the stuff.

But just as I am about to lose myself in the lush geometry of Purcell’s music, I realise something.

I can’t make out what the hell this lot are singing about.

One scene rolls into another. Dido (I think that’s Dido) sips wine while curled up in a very uncomfortable looking armchair. A great sprawl of fake grass is rolled out. The trees decend from the heavens. There’s a picnic. Dido’s bloke takes over a glass of champagne to the conductor (she sniffs it delicately before placing it on the ground, untouched). Dido’s bloke then stands at the front of the stage and gets rained on. I think this is my queue to feel sad.

“What’s going on,” whispers a small voice from a few rows behind me.

I await the answer eagerly. I could do with some help on the matter too.

No reply comes, though whether this is due to the small voice’s caregiver wanting to respect the code of audience silence, or the lack of an answer, I cannot tell you.

A few minutes later, the small voice asks again: “What’s happening?”

I don’t know, kid. I just don’t know.

What is happening? Or rather, what happened to make the people at the Unicorn and ENO think that a child’s version of Dido was something needed to be staged?

As Dido takes a total of three pills before lying on the ground to die I can’t help but question: Who asked for this? And why?

And why didn’t they staple the damn freesheet?

Read More

A leopard always contours

Well, this is strange. It's not often that I feel underdressed at the theatre. Speaking as someone who once wore a dinosaur print sweatshirt to a black tie gala at the Royal Opera House, I'm usually quite content, bar the odd attempt at theme dressing, to rock up in whatever I'm wearing that day.

But here I am, with 116 theatre trips under my patent-leather belt this year alone, and I am feeling distinctly awkward about my appearance.

I'm standing in the long box office queue underneath the weighty canopy of the Savoy hotel, and it's there. That skittish, itchy feeling that comes when you realise just how out of place you are.

And I am severely underdressed. I see that now. Everywhere around me, ladies are in full glam: false lashes, their cheekbones contoured into diamond-cut angles, and displaying a safari park's worth of leopard print. My go-to look of the moment: grungy t-shirt and vintage men's 49er jacket, just isn't cutting it amongst this flock of exotic-looking creatures.

We shuffle our way forwards, as massive cars slide their way off the Strand, slipping their way under the canopy to deposit their passengers at the front door of the hotel. Men in top hats and tails run forward to open doors for them.

A lady in ATG livery shouts at us. The queue is just for ticket pick up. If we have a ticket, we're to go straight in. There's a catch in her throat, as if she's minutes away from losing her voice.

Eventually, I make it inside the great golden doors of the theatre. The box office has little ornate hatches set into the wall, like an old fashioned movie theatre. Not surprising at this place is a palace of art deco. Sham art-deco, as the place was (re)built in the nineties, but still. There's some serious thirties-glam going on all the same. The foyer is painted silver. The box office counters are gold. And the queuing is lifted straight from the great depression.

These tiny box office windows always make me think of the Bocca della Verità in Italy. The Mouth of Truth. A huge stone mask with a gaping hole for a mouth. As Gregory Peck explains to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, "the legend is, if you are given to lying, and put your hand in there, it will be bitten off."

Thankfully, I don't have to give a false name today, and my hand returns unscathed and holding a ticket.

I turn around to head inside, but their's a rope blocking my path. I have to go back outside in order to get inside the theatre.

If anything, the queue as got even larger. All the doors are blocked by people pressing forward. Everyone managing to block everyone else. A perfect storm of leopard print.

One of the Savoy top hats comes over to talk to the ATG lady.

"You need to move them," he says. "The cars can't get through."

ATG lady raises her voice, ordering us to move off the road. But there's nowhere for us to go to. The queue is three doors wide and ten people deep, and growing all the time.

"Let's just go in here," says a group of four women in leopard print as they come out the box office. They aim for the tiny sliver of space in front of me and elbow their way in.

"The car can't move," persists the top hot.

ATG lady doesn't look at him. She knows about the damn car. But she also knows that fifty people are considerably harder to move than a single car.

Gradually, I'm jostled towards the door, and I stumble through, coming to a halt just in front of the bag-checker.

He looks inside, and then takes hold of the bottom, giving it a good feel.

A really good feel. He's not letting go. I can see his hands curling around something through the fabric.

Something long and cylindrical.

"It's my umbrella," I explain.

He let's go and I'm waved in towards the next person in this entrance procedure.

"Three floors down," says the ticket checker, glancing at my ticket.

I'm in the stalls tonight. A fancy seat for a fancy theatre.

The stairs are painted yellow. With big green circles clustered in corners as if the walls have developed some sort of fungal growth.

Okay. Not that fancy then.

It takes me the full three-floor descent to realise the green circles are meant to be grapes.

It's a relief to step into the auditorium and be back into the world of towering silver walls and upholstered art deco. The seat numbers are stitched into diamonds shapes on the seats and even the fire exit sign has its own extravengent frame to sit within. But this is all background detail to what is going on up on the stage.

A fuck-off massive 9 to 5 sign, complete with LED screen, light up lettering, and enough glitter to take a Liberace tribute act on world tour.

Two young women come and sit next to me. They're not wearing leopard print, but they make up for it by each having two drinks. A glass of wine. And a cocktail. They have to take it in turns to get into their chairs as the drinks mean they don't have any hands free to go about the business of taking off their jackets and flipping down the seats.

"Are we allowed to take photos?" one asks.

"No!" cries the other, scandalised.

"Oh, I just wanted a selfie with the 9 to 5..."

"Oh, that's fine. I thought you meant during the show."

"Nah. Just a selfie with the 9 to 5."

"Not during the show?"

"No, now."

"They don't let you take photos during the show."

"But it's fine now?"

"Yeah, it's fine now."

That settled, they take selfies together. They're having a great time.

I should have brought a cocktail. And a friend. This is totally the wrong show to be going to solo. And sober.

The face of the alarm clock in the 9 to 5 transforms into Dolly Parton's face, and we are treated to an intro from the country queen.

The audience cheers. And drinks.

As the show progresses, the drinkers become drunker, and the non-drinkers grow ever restless.

A woman in the row in front turns around to glare at my neighbours. They've been chattering a good deal.

They don't notice the glare. And continue their conversation.

By the second act, most of the audience is properly drunk.

The glaring lady has resorted to adding a new manoeuvre to her repertoire of admonishments - a finger raised to pursed lips.

The young women giggle in reply.

"Shh!" one hushes sarcastically in reply.

I now know why the front of house areas are painted with grapes.

"Someone's in our seats," says one of the leopard-print ladies, holding a fish-bowl full of some pink-coloured concoction. She pouts. Actually pouts. Her lower lip jutting out to show her distress as she waves towards the filled-seats.

"Mum, you're in the wrong row..."

The glarers have multiplied, and are on full tutting duty for the second act.

But even an army of glarers isn't enough to interrupt that good time being had by a leopard-lady in the front row.

She sways in her seat, almost in time with the music, claps along to the beat in her heart, and cheers every time one of the trio of 9-to-5ers on stage gets one over the MAN.

But when she turns around in her seat to talk excitedly to the person behind her, it gets too much for the glarers.

Across the stalls I spot an usher rushing down the opposite aisle. She pauses by the doorway and stands on tip-toe to get a good look at our leopard-lady.

Someone must have tattled.

A few minutes later, a different usher comes rushing down the nearest aisle, wearing the expression of someone who has just drawn the short straw.

She crouches down next to leopard-lady and whispers something.

Leopard-lady nods. She gets it. She'll be quiet.

The usher smiles gratefully and retreats.

Job done.

Well, almost.

Leopard-lady gets up from her seat, swinging her handbag over her shoulder, she heads for the exit.

The whispering usher chases after her.

There's nothing through that door but the way out.

A minute later and leopard-lady is back, in her seat, and clapping away.

No one tries to stop her fun this time.

As the cast finish their curtain calls, she waves each of the trio off stage. And they wave back.

Aww.

Someone really needs to set her up with the mayor of Hornchurch. Something tells me they'd get on just fabulously.

In the meantime, perhaps she can teach me how to contour...

Read More

Being Janet

8pm. A start time that promises so much when you have a companion to spend the evening with, hanging around in cafes and debating whether you can manage another drink before rolling yourselves over to the theatre. Less so when you are off for a date with no one but your stupid cough, and have two solid hours to fill before curtain up.

I decide to take a massive detour around the West End, checking out what was happening at the Dominion (nothing much) before making my way south of the river. But even after all that, I still arrived at Southwark Street, sore of foot and heavy of bag, with half an hour to spare.

I've never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory before. Tickets are outrageously expensive, and despite them pushing an early booking agenda, don't dip much before the mid-thirties. But I'm here now, due to having a ticket passed onto me by a friend who can no longer make use of it.

From the outside, it doesn't look like much. It's in one of those tall, old, stone buildings that could house anything from a bank to a squat.

What it does contain, as I find out on stepping off the street and into a small courtyard, is a restaurant.

Am I in the wrong place? I'd seen signs for the theatre but perhaps I had gone down the wrong way. I did think it strangely close to the other theatre on this street: The Bunker. Maybe I was supposed to go around the other way.

There were people sitting on a bench in the courtyard, all hunched over their phones with that collective boredom you see at bus stops hanging over them. One of them glances up and looks at me curiously.

Oh well, that was it. I had to go in.

There's a small sign on the desk oppostite the doors. Theatre and Bar it says, with an arrow pointing the way.

Thank goodness. I was in the right place.

I follow the arrow, which which we down a narrow path that curls it's way between busy tables, left then right, then right again, until I reach the other end of the room.

There's a door back here, covered in laminated A4 print outs. "Box Office & Theatre Entrance," one says. "Please mind your step," warns another.

I mind the step, and make my way through.

From the restaurant, I now seem to find myself in a pub. Not just a pub, an old man's pub. An old man's pub in some remote village. The ceilings are low and the heavy wooden beams make it feel even lower. There are brick walls and exposed wiring that should give it that Shoreditch edge, but somehow just make it look a little tired.

The bar is opposite. There's a long queue.

I can't see the box office.

I'm in the right place though. There are theatre posters on the walls. I may not frequent old man pubs on the regular, but even I know they don't tend to go for old theatre posters as decor.

I edge my way further in. There's a lot of people in here.

Ah, there it is. The box office. Hidden around the corner.

I join the queue.

There's only one person ahead of me, but he's taking for frickin' ever.

I spend my time darting forwards and back as people try to get past me to the few chairs remaining vacant.

"Yes?"

Oh good. Another person has jumped behind the counter.

I step forward and... shit. What was the name again? Not mine. Don't say that.

I manage to give Janet's surname. It feels weird and a bit wrong. Like I'm a spy in an undercover operation. Mission: Orpheus Descending.

It comes out sounding strained. There's no way he doesn't know that's not my name. I wasn't even slightly convincing. I'd make a terrible spy. And an even worse actor.

He starts looking through the tickets.

I tell myself that I'm Janet today, not Maxine. I need to think Janet thoughts: retro dresses, novelty prints, red hair, and Shakespeare.

Shit. He might ask for my postcode. Janet's postcode. I'd been rehearsing it the whole way over. All the way through the West End and across the river. And I couldn't recall a single digit of it.

"Janet?" he says, plucking out a ticket.

"Err..."

"That's one ticket," he says, handing it over.

Oh, wow. Scrap everything I've ever said. I'm a great actor. And would make a fucking fantastic spy. No wait. Even better. I could act the fuck out of a spy-character. Sign me up for the next series of Killing Eve, because I've got this shit down.

I'm so pleased with myself it takes me a second to realise that the guy on box office is trying to tell me something.

I try to focus. It sounded like he sais the show was two hours and forty minutes, but that can't be right.

"The first act is one hour forty," he says. I must have pulled a face because he grimaces in sympathy. "Then there's a fifteen-minute interval, followed by a forty-minute second act. And there's no readmission."

"Christ..." I say, forgetting that I was supposed to be Janet. "Thanks for the warning."

I probably shouldn't have blasphemed. I don't think Janet does that.

Two hours, forty minutes. And a 8pm start.

Is this a thing now? When did it become a thing? When did long plays stop demanding early starts? Do people not need sleep in this town?

I buy a programme in an attempt to cover up my error. I have four pounds in my purse. Would Janet pay with the exact change or hand over a fiver? I don't know. Shit. This is terrible. I'm floundering. Cancel my Killing Eve audition. I'm not ready for this yet.

I hand over the four pound coins and scuttle away, intending to hide behind my programme.

There are no chairs going spare, but I spot a leaning table without any elbows attached to it.

I rush over, and dump my programme and purse on it, staking my claim before anyone else has the chance.

It lasts for precisely half a minute before a couple plonks down their wine next to me, and jostle me around to the other side.

"The house is now open if you'd like to take your seats," comes a call from the auditorium door. I hadn't noticed it before. There are curtains made of what looks like sailcloth. There are even metal rivets punctuating the edges.

I look around, trying to work out if they tie into a theme somehow. The posters, the beams, the exposed brick, and the whitewashed walls. And now sailcloth.

Whatever's going on, I'm not getting it.

But I do suddenly realise why I was getting such old-man-pub vibes from this venue. It is absolutely packed with old men. They're everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a high proportion of men at the theatre. Not even at that chemsex play at The Courtyard.

Is that the Menier effect? Or is it Tennessee Williams who's to blame?

"The show includes haze," continues to front-of-houser. He has to raise his voice over the din. "Loud gunshots..." No one is listening. His list of warnings trails away into nothing.

A bell rings. It's only a quarter to. I wait, expecting a proclamation to follow, but there's nothing. I'm confused. Was the bell a reminder for us to go in? Or final call at the bar?

The couple next to me are on the move again. I'm finding myself bumping against the next table.

It's time for me to go in.

I look at the ticket for the first time.

Row A.

Of course it is.

Janet is such a front-rower.

I mean, I am such a front-rower. Because I am Janet. Love the front row, me. Can't get enough of it.

There's seating on three sides here, and I'm in the bank on the far side.

I tuck my bag under my chair and have a look at the programme. Is a tri-fold number. Rather fancy. It even has production photos in place of headshots, which is a very nice touch that I've never seen before.

I look closer. Hang on. That's Jemima Rooper! I love Jemima Rooper. Loved ever since she broke my heart in The Railway Children. Fucking hell. And there's Hattie Moran! I love her too! And Seth Numrich! Blimey. This is one hell of a cast.

Janet knows how to book good theatre.

I mean, I know how to book good theatre.

Having two hours and forty minutes to gaze at this cast doesn't sound so bad. Not anymore.

But when Jemima Rooper comes out it is under a mask of makeup. White powder. Red cheeks. Black eyes. She looks terrifying, and I feel attacked. I've suspected that I've been rocking the white powdered, red-cheeked, and black-eyed look about five years longer than is really appropriate. But man, I can't stop. And neither can Jemima Rooper's Carol.

She dances around the shop that we are living in, swamped by her giant leopard print coat, daring people to love her, to hate her. So desperate for them to accept her that she can't help forcing them to reject her.

I'm staring at her so hard I'm almost embarrassed by it.

As the house lights rise for the interval, the front-of-house steps in front of our row, blocking us in.

"If you can walk this way," he says, indicating the front of the stage-area.

I follow his directions and head back out into the pub.

It's already full. There's nowhere to stand without getting bumped and shoved. I press myself against the wall, but it's no good. There's a constant flow of people making their way to the loos and every single one of them knocks me as they pass.

I go back into the theatre.

The set has changed. The tables have been rearranged.

There's no possible way to take the directed route

I walk right across the stage and hope the front-of-houser doesn't spot me. It's what Janet would have done. Probably.

Forty minutes left. It's not going to end well. I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Someone's going to die. I can feel it.

I hope it's not that nice Seth Numrich. He's so handsome.

Or Jemima Rooper. Not sure I could deal with seeing her go down.

Hattie Morahan I can cope with.

Except, nope, I really, really can't.

Oh, god. This is dreadful. Why are people so awful? I can't stand it.

I want to close my eyes, but I'm frightened that something will happen if I do. Not that I'll miss it, you understand. But that the very act of closing my eyes would provoke it. As if my being witness is the only thing holding the bad things at bay.

But I must have blinked.

Because the bad things come.

As inevitable as the sunrise.

It takes a long time to get out of the theatre. Plenty of time to listen in to my fellow play-watcher's conversations.

They're all talking about it as if they just read it in a textbook. As if it wasn't the most emotionally shattering thing to happen to them.

I hate them, and want to get away from the,, but there's only one exit, and I'm at the back of a very long queue.

"It would be terrible if there was ever a fire in here..." someone says.

Terrible, and yet I long to burn everything down.

Read More

The woman in black is dancing with me, cheek to cheek

“Look!” I say, pushing my chair back from my desk so that my colleague Martha can see my outfit. “I’m the woman in black!”

She’s impressed.

At least, I think she’s impressed.

She doesn’t look impressed.

Perhaps I should have gone harder with my theme dressing. Worn a bonnet. Contracted some terrible wasting disease.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t look any different to any other day. I took the black many years ago. I don’t need to dress up. I’m already the woman in black.

By the end of the day, I’m feeling less enthused about my sartorial choices. The long black wafty skirts of my dress have already become the victim to a splash of sriracha from my lunch and a white stain further down towards the hem that I can’t identify the source of.

Oh well. I suppose I can just blame it on the wasting disease.

And anyway, I have other things to think about. Like what to have for dinner.

We decided on the Delaunay Counter, as it’s just around the corner from the Fortune Theatre and I wanted schnitzel. But which one? Pork or chicken? With a silent apology to my ancestors, I go for pork. With a salted caramel hot chocolate on the side. A concoction that turns out to be a glass mug filled with a chocolate sauce that requires a spoon in order to consume it, topped with whipped cream so thick it just got a job writing for the Daily Mail. Thus I have put together what may well be a contender for the least kosher meal ever devised.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Martha admits, not for the first time, as we walk over to the theatre.

Martha is one of those innocent souls that doesn’t mind admitting when she’s a bit scared.

“It’ll be fine,” I say with the faux-confidence of someone who really doesn’t want to see a scary play by herself.

You see, I’ve seen The Woman in Black before. Took my whole family for my brother’s birthday years’ and years’ ago. Ghost Stories was in the West End at the time and he fancied a bit of theatrical horror in his life. I don’t remember why we chose The Woman in Black over Ghost Stories. Perhaps the fact that one of them feels like it’s been running forever, while the other was only going for a few months had something to do with it. I did end up going to see Ghost Stories a few weeks’ later. By myself. Still get the shudders every time I sense a whiff of bleach in the air.

But The Woman in Black should be fine. Martha would be okay. Unless…

“I wonder if we’ll be sitting on the aisle,” I ponder aloud.

“I hope not,” says Martha. She hasn’t seen the play before. But she’s an experienced theatre-goer and knows full well that bad things can happen to people sitting on the aisle. “Gosh, it’s tiny!”

It is tiny. The foyer of the Fortune is so small the box office is practically out the street.

After picking up my tickets, we have to back out slowly the way we had come in order to squeeze ourselves back in through the door that will take us down to the stalls.

Or take Martha down to the stalls, at least.

So storms on ahead while I try to juggle bag, tickets, and purse in pursuit of programme ownership.

“Sorry,” I say to the world in general as I side-step the programme seller in order to fit myself into the tiny bit of foyer space going spare in order to negotiate this important transaction.

Tickets stuffed in pocket, purse returned to bag, and programme stowed safely under my arm, I make my way down the stairs and try and find Martha.

There’s a sign at the bottom. Stalls on the right, bar on the left.

Well, she can’t have turned right. I still have the tickets. She must have gone left.

I go into the bar. No sign of her.

Oh god.

The ghost has got her. The Woman in Black.

Not me. The other one.

Shit.

I get out my phone and send her a message. “I’m in the bar.”

A woman in ATG livery rushes past. “The show’s about the start if you care to go through,” she says cheerfully.

I want to tell her that her theatre ghost has kidnapped my friend, but she’s already gone, telling the next person that they are free to bring their drinks in with them.

I check my phone. No reply. Martha never doesn’t reply.

She’s definitely dead.

Shit. I mean… who’s going to proofread my programmes now…

Oh, and other reasons for being sad.

I’m frantic now. The usher tasked with ushering us all into the theatre is looking at me. She wants me to go in.

I turn around, ready to search the bar for any tell-tale trails of ectoplasm on the carpet.

Martha beams at me, phone in hand.

“The loos are so strange!” she says, as if I haven’t been having a panic attack imagining her being trapped underground by a spectre with an impeccable taste in dresses. “There’s so little room they’re like, fitted in a triangle.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I say weakly. “Shall we go in?!”

We go in.

No one checks our tickets, and there’s no one to direct us to our seats.

I glance at the nearest seat. It’s marked with a 1.

“We must be around the other side,” I say, leading the way across the back of the stalls to the other aisle.

I pull the tickets out of my pocket and check them again.

“Here we are, row G,” I say. “And we’re on the aisle! Do you want to-“

“No,” says Martha, before I can even finish the question.

Right then.

I step back and let her into the safety of the second seat.

Looks like I’m going to have to be the brave one tonight.

There’s a group of young boys sitting behind us. Very young. Very loud too. Filled with bravado and pre-teen hormones.

This is going to be fun.

Heavy curtains are drawn over the doors and the lights dim. This is it. It’s happening. There’s no escape now.

The play starts gently. A man. On stage. Reading what sounds like a diary entry. He’s really not very good. I sympathise. I’m not good at public speaking either.

There’s another bloke to. An actor. He’s trying to give the reader advice. Less description. More emotion.

I frown at him. Fucking rude. The reader is doing his best! And some of us are just naturally wordy…

Now he’s explaining that recorded sound can replace the reader’s florid paragraphs. Which is all very well for a reading, but what am I supposed to do?

Oh dear. I’m beginning to empathise too much with this reader-chappy. Not good. Not good at all. I mean, usually it would be. I’d almost go so far as to consider it excellent. A positive boon, even. But feeling as if you are sliding your feet into the shoes of a character in a horror story is never going to end well.

He’s getting the hang of it now, this reading-aloud stuff. Even trying his hand at a bit of acting, dropping accents and charactisation all over the place as the pair of them tell this tale from his youth, back when he was sent to the funeral of an old lady, to pay his respects on behalf of the firm he works for.

The lights dim further.

There’s a blast of that recorded sound, loud enough the shake the floorboards. Lights flash across the backdrop.

A train, blaring through a station.

I jump. Martha does to. She twists around like a panicked cat and grabs onto my arm.

Boyish screams from the row behind is quickly replaced by embarrassed laughter delivered at a level at least three octaves lower.

Martha detaches herself and whispers an apology as I pat her hand.

I shrug my reply, hoping to convey that I’m totally cool with it all and that I’m a big brave girl, who ain’t afraid of no ghost, and that if my arm can in any way offer comfort over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, then it is at her disposal.

I think she got it.

Someone’s walking down the aisle.

I turn my head slowly, holding on tight to my seat.

It’s a woman. Dressed head to toe in black.

I brace myself, determined not to show fear. I have to be brave. For Martha.

The woman passes, wafting cool air over my cheek.

A second later, she’s gone.

I breathe again. I laugh, feeling silly.

Plus, as an aspiring theatre ghost, I have a reputation to protect. I can’t have the other ghosts laughing at me.

The house lights switch on.

Martha and I look at each other in confusion.

“There’s an interval?” she asks.

I’m surprised too. The whole performance is only two hours.

The boys sitting behind and around us start making their presence known, turning Martha and I into a pair of whack-a-moles as we stand up and sit down and stand up again to let them past.

They’re laughing and pointing at the stage, turning into a bunch of mini-Sid James’ as they make Ooo-err style noises.

I look over to see what has been the cause of this Carry On.

The safety curtain is down. And painted all over it, is an illustration of a woman. Ten feet tall and as blue as a Na'vi. She’s also completely nude, apart from a length of blue cloth wrapped around her hips and a red mask across her face.

I snort.

“I sometimes forget that boys are,” I say to Martha, nodding towards the naked lady.

“Was that what it was?” She laughs.

The mood lightens. The theatre is bright and warm. We are far away from tales of heavily-draped women who hang around in graveyards. There’s nothing to be scared of here.

Our joviality doesn’t last long.

Half way through the second half Martha clamps down on my wrist. Hard.

“God, I’m so sorry,” she whispers. I laugh to show I don’t mind.

But as the yelps from the boys behind us die down and our attention returns to the stage, I give my wrist a quick shake. Martha is hella strong. That girl lifts.

I find myself laughing harder and harder as the play goes on. Snorting as loud sounds and dark figures attempt to do their worst to be.

It’s all for show, and I don’t know who I’m trying to convince. Me. Or Martha.

Oh god. Oh no. There she is. The woman in black. Her face. Oh my god, that face!

Be strong, Max. Be strong. Be strong be strong bestrongbestrongbestrong.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.

The tale ends.

We’re thrown back into the theatre. The actor and the reader drop their characters. The lights are bright. The laughter is back, if a little strained.

But there’s one trick left to play.

“I didn’t see any woman,” says the reader-chappy, after the actor congratulates him for finding such a creature.

The programme bares him out.

“Cast: Arthur Kipps - Stuart Fox [that’s the reader-chappy] / The Actor - Matthew Spencer.”

That’s it.

There’s no mention of a woman in black.

“That’s a great role,” I say to Martha as we gather our things. “The woman in black. Just walking around looking terrifying.”

I wait, needing to hear Martha confirm that she too saw the woman in black.

“Yeah,” she says, but she’s half distracted by her jacket.

Oh dear.

At home I pull out the programme and go through every biography line-by-line, searching for my woman in black.

“Nina Deiana,” it reads. “Vision Productions.”

I smile. She was definitely producing visions for me.

Read More

She is risen

I ATEN'T DED.

I know, I know. You were worried. I drop a blog post about being very, very ill and then disappear without another word. I meant to put a banner on the site to let you know that I'm, well, n't ded, like an internet-soaring Granny Weatherwax, but then I realised that if I did actually die, there would be no-one to take the message down, and while I would appreciate the humour of my determined declaration of non-death surviving me until the payment on my domain is due, I figured that the other ghosts might laugh at me, and even worse, attempt to stage an intervention.

So, anyway. I'm not, in fact, dead. I am quite the opposite. I am risen. Like the phoenix, Or the daffodils. Or any other spring-appropriate return-to-life metaphors that you can to think of. And while we all debate whether I am the messiah or a very naughty boy, can I take a moment to say how much I've enjoyed all the responses I've had to my... sickness. Over the past week I've been compared to Mimi from La Boheme, Violetta from Traviata, Marguerite from Marguerite and Armand, and... errr... Satine from Moulin Rouge. And while I revelled in being cast among the canon of sex-workers-dying-from-consumption (who knew it was such a trope?), I'm not sure I belong among those aria-singing delicate creatures. Personally, I see myself more as a Billie Piper in Penny Dreadful, spluttering all over that nice Mr Dorian. Like... it was intense. Blood everywhere. Seriously, I had to have a shower and put on a load of laundry before going to the hospital.

Right, now I've finished my course of antibiotics and thoroughly grossed you all out, it's time to take you with me to the next theatre on the marathon list.: Hampstead Theatre. I do like the Hampstead. Firstly because it requires little more than falling out of Swiss Cottage tube station in order to get to, and secondly because it makes me feel like I'm making a real contribution when I'm there. I swear, I bring down the mean age of the audience by a good decade the second I stumble through the door. It's not often that I get to feel so young and cool, and believe me, I relish every moment of it.

But as I arrive in the foyer, I find it devoid of octogenarians to compare myself to. Devoid of anyone of any age.

The place looks deserted.

One of the lady’s on box office beckons me forwards.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles,” I saw. Her hand is already on the box of tickets and she is flipping through them before I’ve even got the first syllable out.

“What was the name again?” she asks, still riffling through the box.

“This is the final call for Jude,” comes a booming voice over the tannoy.

Ah, that explains the frenzy.

“It’s for The Firm,” I tell her. I thought the information might calm her. The Firm, the play in their smaller, downstairs, theatre, doesn’t start for another 15 minutes. But she barely pauses, thanking me and reaching over for the other ticket box to flick her way through the tickets there.

“Here you go,” she says, unfolding them to check the tickets before handing them over. “You’re downstairs.”

I go down the stairs, passing the great bulbous curves of the main space, which bulge out like the bow of a ship, giving me flashbacks to when I watched Pirates under the hull of the Cutty Sark a few months back.

There’s a large foyer down here, filled with the kind of tables and chairs that make me think I should be in the subsidised cafe of some trendy modern university.

Not one is using them now.

Seating is unreserved and the queue is already stretching from bow to stern.

I push my way through and join the end of it. No wonder the box office lady was so stressed. This queue is massive.

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I managed to make it to one of the Downstairs shows at the Hampstead. Been a while since I was Upstairs, come to think of it. Gosh, when was I last here? Suddenly it comes to me. Gloria. How could I forget that? Best interval cliff-hanger since… well, ever…? I spent the entire interval stumbling around, staring into the distance, and whimpering. That Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one hell of a playwright. I really think he has the potential to go all the way, you know. I pause, trying to conjure the name last Downstairs play I saw, but I’m failing. Perhaps because it didn’t have an interval. Downstairs shows rarely do.

Queue up, sit down, watch a play, then get the hell out. That seems to be the motto of the downstairs space.

Well, I’m sure it was just great, whatever the hell the play was.

The queue is moving.

There’s a sign by the door.

The play is only an hour and a half. No interval.

Ah. Was that good? I can’t tell. Usually that would be good. But now I’ve remembered Gloria and my interval stumbling and I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.

We file through the door, down a very dark corridor, and emerge in what looks like a fancy cocktail bar.

My position at the back of the queue doesn’t seem to have affected my seat selection. There are two banks of benches, arranged at an obtuse angel to each other, and I manage to nab a spot close to the central aisle, in the third row back.

Nice.

I’m well pleased with that.

I’m even more pleased to find a programme on my seat.

I’m said before that a freesheet placed lovingly on the seats for the audience is the sign of a swanky theatre, but the Hampstead being, well, the Hampstead, just have to go one step further and offer up a fully-colour printed, 16 page, full-on programme. The sort I would charge a whole two quid for. And here they are, just lying around, to be picked up. For free.

I go to flick through it, but I don’t get much further than the third page.

“Hampstead Theatre would like to thank RADA for the loan of beer pumps.”

I can’t help it. I laugh.

Bless them. Isn’t that just the must perfect sentence ever committed to paper? How gloriously middle-class. Congratulations to everyone involved. Especially to RADA, for their stock of beer pump props.

Eventually, I manage to move on. But not by much as I find another gem on the centre-fold.

Well done programme-maker of the Hampstead Theatre, whoever you are. And to the playwright, Roy Williams, I suppose. I’m certainly feeling all kinds of damn aches at the moment. In places that I didn’t even know I could ache. And, I know I’m on a marathon and everything, and marathons are notoriously bad on your joints, but I didn’t think that applied to the theatrical variety.

But then, I didn’t think people seriously coughed up blood in this post-industrial revolution, post-slum era of socialised medicine that we live in, and yet here we are, so….

Anyway, you don’t care about that. Just pour me a shot of indulgence for this pity party of mine and let’s move on.

Back to the theatre. And the play. Which is starting now.

Looks like they are getting ready for a party, and not of the pity variety. It’s a welcome home jobby. They even have a banner.

The Firm, in true John Grisham style, is a gang of, Ooo, what shall we call them? Thugs sounds too violent, although there’s plenty of then. But I think the word thug suggests a certain mindlessness to their brutality and there’s nothing mindless about this lot. Everything is thought of, worked over, considered. Words are tested and tasted and thrown around.

Ne'er-do-well, perhaps? Nah, too cutsie. And these blokes aren’t cutsie.

Mobster? Too Godfather. We’re in London not New York.

Gangster then? Very East End circa the 1960s. Very Jez Butterworth’s Mojo.

And it is all very Mojo. With the bar and the gang of… whatever they are. Just… without the mojo.

Shame.

Okay, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s lacking in the grimy glamour of the sixties which is a huge portion of Mojo’s mojo. And the Soho seediness that can never be replicated south of the river, no matter how hard the people of Streatham try.

But it does has that hot guy from Fleabag in it. No, not that one. The other one. The lawyer, not the priest.

So, it does have a little mojo. Just not Mojo levels of mojo.

Not gangster then. Besides, a gang of gangsters is some weak-arse writing. Even for me.

Let’s just move on, shall we?

The man sitting next to me certainly is. He’s not paying attention at all. He’s got his coat over his knees and I can see it moving as he scratches himself underneath.

At least, I hope he’s scratching.

I slide over a little on the bench.

It’s alright. There’s plenty of room.

This is the Hampstead after all. No Finborough-style packing them in over here.

I bump into something.

It’s a handbag, belonging to my other neighbour. She’d placed it rather pointedly between us on the bench when I came to sit next to her. A makeshift wall to divide us. A fencing off of her personal space. I wanted to tell her the show was sold out, and that if it wasn’t me, she’d have someone else sitting here. Put I didn’t. Mainly because I was worried that she would reply that her problem wasn’t with anyone else, but with me, specifically.

Looks like I’m stuck between a bag and a hard… ummm.

Let’s leave that there.

The play’s over anyway.

It takes a while to get out. The seats might be generous, but the audiences of Hampstead Theatre like to take their time, and the gangways are all full as they chatter about the play.

“It was good, but I didn’t understand a word of it,” observes one lady. She must have been a fan of those beer pumps.

Finally, I manage to escape and I make a break for the stairs.

But half-way up I realise something. I stop, blocking the man behind me.

“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m wrestling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to bring up the camera.

There, staggered up the steps, is The Firm’s artwork.

That is such a nice touch. Swish as fuck.

Perhaps that’s way I love the Hampstead.

They do good marketing.

I respect that.

Not sure about their press though. Those bastards wouldn’t give me a ticket. Not for this play. Not that I tried for this play. The ticket was only a fiver, and I feel a bit mean about putting in a request for a ticket that well-priced (plus… free programme. Fucking bargain). I mean for the main house. Rejected. Bastards. And at a whopping cost of thirty-eight quid, I’m going to have to do some serious saving up to get the upstairs space ticked off my list.

Pity about the penicillin. With my bloody cough I could have made a fortune wafting around with a stained hankie…

Read More

Too sick to think of a title...

It isn't often that I genuinely worry that I'll run out of District Line before getting to my destination, but we're really pushing its limits here. I'm so far down the line, there was some genuine debate as to whether this theatre even counted as a London one. There was some serious concern from certain parties that I might actually be heading towards, wait for it, Essex.

But as per the rules of the marathon, if I can get there on my Oyster card, then it qualifies for the marathon. I here I am, stepping onto the platform at Hornchurch station, just a short walk from the next theatre on my list: Queen's Theatre.

One of the unexpected thrills of heading this far out is not quite knowing what you're going to find out here.

I mean, when you're going to the West End, you kinda know what to expect. An old Edwardian building stuck together with gold and velvet. Pub theatres are all black boxes and faerie lights. Fringe theatres are coloured lights and mismatched furniture. But the further I out I go, the less geographical knowledge I have on which to hook my expectations.

Would the Queen's Theatre be a converted church? A reformed synagogue? A born-again basilica? A doctored hospital? A reworked workhouse? A metamorphosed butterfly house? A remodelled model village? It could be anything!

As I walk down North Street, I peer at all the signs trying to work out which building it could be. I spy a church coming up. There's a large sign out front. "Dream big. Pray bigger!" it says in big round letters. Was that it? It isn’t. It can’t be. I’m on the wrong side of the road.

It should be somewhere on the left, according to Google Maps.

A couple strolling ahead of me turn left into a park. I follow them. They look like the sort who might enjoy a good musical.

And there, across the wide expanse of grass is a building that looks like it has been lifted straight from some college campus. The kind where you can imagine cool young people swarming about clutching textbooks larger than themselves. Or perhaps rushing up the stairs, their massive portfolio cases smashing against their knees with every step.

Was this it?

I squint my eyes against the last of the day’s sun, but I’m not wearing my glasses and I can’t make out what the sign says. But that brick monolith jutting out the back looks like it could be a fly tower.

The path gently curves, leading me to the front of the building.

There’s a wide staircase out front made up of floating steps, and a large sign stuck on the side of the building in huge orange letters. I have reached Queen’s Theatre it seems, and even better, returned to the seventies once more - or at least, before apostrophes were invented, as the sign seems to be distinctly lacking in the punctuation department.

I wonder whether this was a mistake of the sign-makers, or part of some grand drive towards inclusivity. I’m not sure which is worse. Of course, it could be something truly dreadful, like me having spent the entirety of this post writing Queen’s when in fact the theatre was named for multiple majesties. This is not something that I am prepared to check, so we must all agree, right here and now, that it is the sign that is at fault. And not me.

There’s another sign next to the first. Smaller and considerably less orange. “Supported by the London Borough of Havering,” it reads. Phew.

Despite the proximity to the punctuation-lacking sign, I decide to put my faith entirely in the second one. We were still in London. And not Essex. The sign says so. Let that be an end to such discussion.

That settled, I go up the stairs, keeping to the edge of the railing just in case any students come flying down the steps, their portfolios flapping in the breeze, and head inside to pick up my ticket.

Oh, oh my… look at this.

It says the name of my blog. On the ticket.

Just above the title of the show: The Hired Man.

Fucking hell.

I can’t stop staring at it.

I’m stumbling around, not knowing where I’m going and I don’t even care.

There are press drinks downstairs, but what care I for wine when my ticket has London Theatre Marathon printed across the top.

This is it. This is the big time.

I’m going to need to frame this sucker when I get home.

I quickly put it in my pocket before I fall down the stairs. I may not be overly fussed by the prospect of press drinks, but I also don’t want to fall flat on my arse in front of the good people of Hornchurch. I spy someone wearing a gold coin down there. One of the big fancy ones that sits on the shoulders. The sort of mayor wears. Does Hornchurch have a mayor? Well, if it does, he’s in the building and guilded up.

I make it down the stairs in one piece and start inching myself through the crowd. I bypass the wine. I shouldn’t be having it anyway. I’m actually stupidly ill and on antibiotics right now. But there is something far more interesting lurking against the wall. A table absolutely heaving with food. There are sausage rolls. And sandwiches. And wraps. And no where on the patient information leaflet for my pills does it say that I can’t mix penicillin with sausage rolls, or sandwiches, or wraps. I mean… I haven’t actually read it. But I fairly certain that it doesn’t all the same.

I grab a few and tuck in, not even caring if the mayor of Hornchurch sees me with pastry crumbs all down my front. I brush the off.

But then, just as I take a bit and shower a fresh set of crumbs all down my top, I spot someone.

Someone I recognise.

Someone very rapidly walking away from me.

I stumble after him, running up the steps, not even caring that I’m covered in the remanence of two sausage rolls.

“Ian!”

It’s Ian. He’s quite a famous blogger, as it happens. But for the sake of anonymity, let’s just call him Ian.

“Did you get your blog name printed on your ticket?” I ask, diving straight into the important question.

He shows me his ticket. It has his blog name printed across the top. I won’t tell you what it says, but I’m sure you’ve already cracked my code of secrecy.

“Have you tried the sausage rolls?” That’s my follow up question. Never let it be said that I’m not a brilliant conversationalist.

“Oh, I don’t go down there,” he says, waving at the press drinks pit dismissively. “With all the young people.”

“It wasn’t like this back with my old blog. No chance of ever getting a press ticket. And never any sausage rolls. How times change.”

Oh yeah, I’m not sure if I ever mentioned I used to be a theatre blogger in my twenties. I mean a real one. Who wrote real reviews. Well, kind of real reviews. Not diary entries of my theatre trips. I was a catty cow though. How times change, eh?

“Where are you sitting?” I ask.

Turns out he’s sitting next to me. I grin as I show him my ticket.

“Oh fuck off,” he says, reeling back.

I think he’s joking.

Oh well. Time to go in.

Even given the campus-like proportions outside, I’m still surprised by how large it is in here. Not so much a case of “bigger on the inside,” but “bigger than I expected, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. Did I mention the fact that I am very, very ill? Because I am very, very ill, and I am blaming that for my lack of ability to estimate space based on relative sizing of available reference points.”

There’s a great big stage, and what looks like, if my poor tired eyes aren’t seeing things, a revolve sat on top of it.

I fucking love a revolve.

I am well excited.

“Did you choose to come to this, or were you just invited?” I ask Ian.

“I chose. It’s one of my favourite musicals.”

Blimey. That’s quite the statement.

I chose to see this one too. I do like a good musical. And with the marketing copy proudly proclaiming The Hired Man as “The best British musical in 40 years,” well, Hornchurch didn’t need to tempt my with the prospect of sausage rolls to get me on the train, that’s all I’m saying.

I take a few photos from my seat.

“No photography inside the auditorium,” says Ian, pointing at an image of a camera with a red line through it.

I take a photo of the sign.

The show starts.

Huh. This is not what I was expecting.

For a start, I thought there might be a story of some sort. But instead all we’re getting is a lot of songs about work. “Bitter work.”

There is even a song called Work.

Perhaps I should have expected this. The title is, after all, The Hired Man. But, as I may have mentioned, I’ve been very, very ill.

In the interval, I tentatively ask Ian if anything will actually happen in this musical.

“Well, there’s the first world war…”

“Yeah, but that’s not exactly a plot point, is it?”

He shrugs good-naturedly. He’s happy. He’s watching one of his favourite musicals after all.

I’m fairly happy too. There are scones on offer in the pit, and I’m busy making a mess of myself scoffing on them while I try to make sense of the first act.

Plus, the sight of XXX dragging his cello around the stage before patting its curves as the instrument plays the role of his pet dog is a charming memory that is lingering pleasantly. Although, I do think there should be a limit imposed on the talents displayed by performers in a single performance. Acting? Fine. Singing? Definitely. Acting, and singing, and also playing a musical instrument? A little much. But if it leads to scenes of cello-patting and clarinets being brandished in the same way as a villager might brandish their rake before storming the castle… well, I can get on board with that. But acting and singing and playing multiple instruments?

Watching them jump off the revolve in order to take a seat behind one of the two pianos, bang out a tune, and then rush back to join in with a new song is breath-taking in itself.

And despite all the enforced northern grimness, it’s very pretty. From XXX long skirts to XXX natty green jacket, and all those tasty XXX on the men. The music too. I guess. Folky and earnest. And yes, pretty. Even so, it’s not going to be knocking Six off my “Musical Bangers to Write Copy To” Spotify playlist anytime soon.

Because that’s it, isn’t it? It’s not a banger. It’s an intimate, sweet show. Too small and gentle for a theatre as large as Queen’s. In row H, I might as well have been sitting in the back row for the remoteness I felt from the characters. This is a musical that belongs above a pub.

But I’ll tell you who disagrees.

The blooming mayor of Hornchurch.

He jumps to his feet, turning round and waving with his hands as he tries to provoke a standing ovation from the rest of us.

I like his style. And not just because of his fabulous jewellery.

“Going back for seconds?” jokes Ian as we make our way out, and he spots me glancing into the pit.

I decline. It’s a long way home, and I still have to haul myself all the way back to the station. And I am very, very ill.

Read More

Death by Starburst

If I were to go missing, the police would have such a nightmare trying to figure out all the data from my Oyster card.

"She goes to work," they'll say. "And she goes home, but what the fuck is she doing in between?" They'll gather around the commuter screen, all scratching their heads as they look at the latest in a long line of weird London locations that I tapped in at. "Gants Hill? What was she doing there? Does she know anyone in Gants Hill? Could she have been meeting someone there? I mean... what the hell is in Gants Hill?"

Well, you policemen of my potential future, let me tell you. There is nothing in Gants Hill. Nothing. Like, literally nothing. The only reason I had to be in Gants Hill, is because Ilford doesn't have a tube station. It has a train station, for sure. But I wasn't prepared to deal with that nonsense. Not today. So I got the circle line to Gants Hill, and decided to walk from there.

Big mistake.

All the sunshine we've been enjoying for the past week decided to come to an end, at just the right time to ensure I left the house wearing a jacket that was really not up to the job of preventing the wind from trying to blow its way right through to my bones as I trudge down the long hill towards Ilford.

All this, of course, leads to the inevitable question: what the hell is in Ilford?

To which I do actually have an answer: the Kenneth More Theatre.

Yup, me neither.

But there it is. Just off the high street where all the market traders are taking down their stalls. Around the corner from the town hall. In a building I would have sworn was the council offices if it didn’t have KENNETH MORE THEATRE spelt out in huge white letters across the front.

I feel bad for saying a theatre is ugly. I mean, I know as well as anyone how foolish it is to judge a theatre by it’s exterior. But man, the KM is ugly. It’s not just the awkward columns out front that look like they were swiped from a multi-storey car park. Or the line of toothy windows set high on the wall that make me feel sure there must be some toilets on the other side of them. There’s an air of grimness that hangs over the squat shape like Paco Rabanne at the school disco. Let’s just say, the seventies called and they want their pebbledash back.

And their wood panelling. Blimey it’s everywhere. The doors, the walls, even the ceiling, are encased by thin strips of wood that, while they might have intended to conjure happy thoughts of chalet living, roaring fires, and fondue, are inducing terrifying memories of avocado bathrooms instead.#

I head over to the (wood panelled) box office and give my name.

“You’re in row H,” says the box officer, pointing to a seat plan stuck to the counter. Gosh. That’s a first. I don’t think I’ve ever been shown the location of my seat at ticket pick-up point before. I rather like it. “So, you’re half way back,” he continues, and I begin to wonder whether this seat plan action is not standard practise, and that perhaps, I’m giving off the kind of vibes that suggest I wouldn’t be able to find various parts of my anatomy with both hands at my disposal.

“You can go either down,” he says, pointing to the staircase on my right. “And up. Or,” now he points across the foyer. “Up, and then down. The choice is yours.”

Oh dear. I’m not very good with choices. I decide not to commit to either course just yet, and instead focus trying to capture this throwback to the Harold Wilson administration.

“Are there programmes,” someone asks the box office as I’m busy looking around for lava lamps and macramé plant pot holders (I’m unfortunately coming up short on both points).

Excellent question, my friend. This is a bloke who knows the important things to ask.

“They're on the kiosk. Free of charge if you just ask.”

It’s then that I notice the kiosk. It’s next to the box office. And further down, there’s another counter. This one piled up with tea cups and advertising ice cream. Three counters, one foyer. That sounds like the title of a video that has serious viral potential.

Four counters, if one counts (…) the good-sized display of books nestled up between the tea and programmes. “Books all 50p” reads the sign. Which is a bit of a bargain. The people of Ilford seem to agree, and the shelves are being browsed intently by some very serious looking theatre-goers.

I decide not to join the. The last thing I need a pile of books to drag all the way back to Finchley. My bag is heavy enough already.

There’s only one thing I’m prepared to risk permanent spinal damage for, and that’s a programme.

“Can I take one of these?” I ask the lady on the counter.

I could.

So I do.

It’s only a freesheet. A folded A4, run off the photocopier. But it’s free, and available, and won’t provoke a trip to the chiropractor, so I’m grateful.

I tuck it away carefully in my bag, so as not to crumple it, then set off to the auditorium.

Down, and then up.

Another big mistake from ya gurl, Maxine.

The down part takes you right past the looks, and the bright-white painted brickwork is doing nothing to offset the strong smell of urine.

I scuttle down the corridor as quick as I can, launching myself at the ticket checker with the desperation of someone with limited lung capacity.*

Ticket checked, I stumble out the other side into a large theatre. There’s no circle, but the seats stretch far back towards a distant horizon. The walls are brick. The seats are red. And the spotlights are throwing shadows that look like a creepy ghost. I am well pleased with all of it.

As the box officer promised, I’m sitting about half-way back. The rows are well marks, as are the seats. So I have no trouble locating my spot. Which is why I’m surprised when I spot a young girl clambering over from row G to sit next to me.

Her dad edges along the row in the more traditional manner - apologising to everyone he forces to stand and remove themselves from his path.

“Hang on, is this row G?” he asks, as he finally reaches the end of the row.

The last one, gripping onto the back of the chair as he waits for this bloke to vacate the row nods to confirm that this is indeed row G.

“Oh, sorry,” he says. He calls to his daughter. “This is row G!”

“Oh,” says the girl, before swinging her leg back over the seat.

“Think those people are in the wrong seats,” says the end capper.

Those people start scrabbling away in their bags for tickets, eyes blazing. But the light soon fades when they check their seats numbers, and they quietly shift over a single space.

Dad crab-walks back the way he had come, leaving apologies in his wake.

The rest of his row bite back their annoyance at being made to stand, but that doesn’t stop the head shakes and tutting that follow him back to his seat.

The end-capper pulls out a large M&S food carrier and starts distributing snacks to his party. Huge bags of crisps are opened and tucked into open rucksacks for easy play-scoffing access.

How long is this play?

The BBC version was three episodes, but a good hour of that screentime was dedicated to lingering shots of the Aiden “Sexy Vampire” Turner, which no one was complaining about. Surely we wouldn’t need a whole three hours to kill off eight people. Unless they’ve gone and cast Mr Poldark, in which case they can take as long as they need…

I check the cast list.

No sign of those wild curls that can’t be tamed.

Oh well.

I’m exhausted now. All this drama and the play hasn’t even begun.

I’m glad that I’m here to watch a nice, relaxing Agatha Christie. It’s And Then There Were None. A cosy serial killer mystery, set on a deserted island. That’s the stuff.

But as the curtain rises and the secretary tended with the job of welcoming everyone to the island ventures over to the wall to read the poem that acts as a framing device for the murders, the real mystery is why she’s bothering with a cheaply printed nursery rhyme when there are what looks like two Vermeers gracing the wall of this drawing room.

Or why the murder needs to both at all, when time alone would have done the work for them with the sound of the seagulls cawing so loudly outside that it would be enough to drive anyone to run headfirst off the cliffs.

Still, death by incessant cawing isn’t much of a plot driver, and soon our first victim is rolling around on the floor, choking.

The row end-capper from before unwraps a sweet and pops it into his mouth.

He flails, grasping at his neighbours sleeve.

He’s chocking too.

As the actor on stage collapses into stillness, so does our friend the end-capper.

I glance over.

He’s sitting very still.

Very. Still.

I give an internal shrug.

Death imitating art, I guess.**

 

* Now, last week I would have held my hands up and freely admitted that fitness and me are two words that do not belong in the same sentence. But I have since found out that I’m been harbouring a nasty lung infection for the past six months, sooo… just gonna blame that, ya?

** He was fine. Many more sweets were consumed in the second half. He didn’t offer me any.

Read More

Exeunt, In Pursuit of Rylance

"Is this for Shakespeare in the Abbey?" someone asks, indicating the queue.

The person positioned at the end of it, a woman wearing a red tabard that makes her look like she's a hospital cleaner who just popped outside for a cheeky cigarette but actually is one of the Shakespeare's Globe crew, nods. "This is for Shakespeare, yes."

"Is it for tickets?"

Tabard-lady's brow creases. "That," she says, with a dramatic pause. "I can't tell you."

The question asker joins the queue anyway. I do too.

"I'm just making sure that people know what they're waiting for so they don't think they're getting into the abbey," continues to Tabard-lady.

I very much hope we are, in fact, getting into the abbey. That's why I'm here. Shakespeare in the Abbey. I'm rather banking on the title being an indication of what I'm getting. Because if not, I won't have a venue to check off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is bloody impressive. The pavements are blocked solid all the way around as tourists try to capture the perfect selfie with the rising towers of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Usually, in order to get those images of a venue's exterior that go up on my Official Theatre List after I've visited them, I'll cross a road so I can fit the entire building within the frame. But there was no chance of that here. I'd have had to catch the ferry to France to get any hope of fitting all of that Gothic goodness in one picture.

I did my best. And I certainly captured a certain something. The essence of the abbey. With a hint of the moody sky above and the swam of tiny little people below.

The queue shifts forward, taking me through a pair of doors so massive a double-decker bus wouldn't even need to fold in its side mirrors to get through.

There's someone only the other side with one of those plastic boxes that are made to keep recipe cards in, but literally no one keeps recipe cards in. The type of person who actually writes recipe cards is the type of person who will also decoupage their own damn box for them. So, instead these boxes are used by theatres to sort the night's tickets ready for pick up.

I give my name, and get my ticket, and a nice recipe for choux buns.

I keep on going. Through the shadowy gate-way and out into the brightness of a large courtyard.

There's another tabard-wearer stationed out here, pointing people in the right direction and handing out free programmes. Which in this case, is left.

I'm already feeling lost.

Westminster Abbey, which looked like such an imposing monolith from the outside, now appears to be a jumble of buildings nestled together for warmth when seen from the back. Like turning over a beautiful piece of embroidery and seeing all the messy stitch-work.

But I don't get lost. There are tabard-wearers at every corner. And then, at the metal gate that will whisk us inside, a very fancy security guard. He has a gold badge on his hat. It matches nicely with the gilding on the gate.

I don't know whether you've ever been before, but Westminster Abbey is fucking old. Like seriously. I mean, I knew it was old. Intellectually. But I don't think you really understand how fucking ancient it fucking it until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

Frickin kings have walked over these stones. And not just any kings. All the damn kings. And the queens. Especially the queens, I imagine. Stilettos can pox-mark a wooden floor within seconds. Just think want they can do with centuries of heel action.

There are grave stones set into the floor that have been walked over so much that their lettering has been smudged into oblivion.

The corridor starts to fill with Shakespeare-seekers, adding to the smudging of the stones beneath our feet.

Especially my feet. I'm not feeling particular light on them today. Top tip from an experienced theatregoer: if you are planning on attending a promenade performance in the evening, don't order a Chinese takeaway for lunch. And definitely don't consume six slices of sesame prawn toast on top of the curry you were convinced was a good idea when your coworker told you she had a free delivery voucher on Uber Eats.

Oh man. That sesame prawn toast is weighing heavy on me.

I really want to sit down, but I'm pretty sure that if I allow myself to do that I might as well snuggle up with one of the skeletons under the stones as I won't be getting up again any time soon.

I start reading the programme in an attempt to distract myself.

There's a welcome note from Mark Rylance. "You are about to meet many much-loved characters from Shakespeare," it reads. Blah blah blah. Whatever Mark. I skip down a few paragraphs. "As if by chance, you will find actors sometimes even when you aren't looking for them." Blimey. Am I finding the actors? Or are they finding me? Is that a threat, Mark Rylance?

"They will be speaking Shakespeare with you in a random, intimate, and improvised manner. In return, you don't have to do anything other than listen, respond if you wish, and move where your heart takes you."

Respond how I wish?

I don't know, man. I'm not big on improvised responses. I think I'll be skipping that one. As for moving where my heart takes me, Mark Rylance - you think my stomach is an idiot? Wait til you meet my heart.

Oh well. There's no backing out now. It's not like I haven't prostrated myself at the altar of immersive Shakespeare before. Might as well do it in an abbey.

Eventually, the doors open, and we slowly begin to filter in. At first I can't work out what the hold up is. I thought this lot would be bursting to get their Shakespeare on. But as it's my turn to walk up the stone steps and pass through the ancient wooden door, I finally understand. It's hard to move with your neck craned up as far as it will go, gazing at all the wonders of that spectacular vaulted ceiling, hundreds of feet above you. And then, just as the crick is about to become permanent, my eyes lower, following the lines of the fluted stone, down the walls, past the windows, circling around all the impossibly delicate looking twiddly carvings and then finally back to earth, and those uneven flagstones.

I keep my eyes on the flagstones. I can handle the flagstones. Focusing on them feels right. They're about level with us mortals. I feel comfortable with the flagstones. I understand the flagstones. Worn by the years and carrying the load of too many people.

I wonder how Mark Rylance would feel about me standing here, communing with the flagstones. Somehow, I don't think this is what he meant by "move where your heart takes you." For a start, I'm not moving.

Everyone is else. Now that the initial shock of this grand old building has worn off, people are scattering in every direction, in search of Shakespeare.

I turn left. Attracted by the pretty blue colour of the backing behind the rows of seats in what is, according to the programme, called the Quire.

I pass under a golden arch and then the abbey opens out before me into an impossible high and improbably wide space.

Scientist's Corner is on the right, and there's a small group over there inspecting all the carved memorials on the walls. But there's an even bigger group up ahead. A huge circle gathered around two actors. A man and a woman. I get closer, drawn by their voices.

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand," says Romeo. "This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

He kisses her.

Goodness. Is that allowed? In a church?

A little girl dressed head to foot in pink covers her eyes and presses her face into her mother's leg.

Her mother laughs and strokes the girl's hair.

They go through the rest of the scene. The girl slaps her hands over her scandalised eyes as lovers kiss again.

"You kiss by the book," says Juliet, before rushing out of the circle and off towards the Quire. A grinning Romeo follows close behind.

Just as the circle begins to disband, another pair emerge, as if from the crowd.

I don't recognise this scene. I can't tell what's going on. I decide to follow Mark Rylance's advice and move on.

There's a smaller gathering further back. Only ten or so people have made it all the way down here. There's one actor, dressed as an RAF officer and speaking so quietly he's almost drowned out by the pair near Scientists' Corner.

He's holding a toy plane.

He looks up and I see his face.

It's only Mark bloody Rylance.

He's doing Richard III. I've seen him do Richard III. But not like this. Not so softly. So gently. So damn close.

He walks towards us, reaches out, and strokes a woman's cheek.

She looks like she's about to faint. Or possibly implode.

Before she manages either, he moves away, walking around a grave. I look down. It's the unknown soldier, surrounded by a garland of paper poppies.

Rylance knees down next to it, flying his toy plan over the inscription.

He pauses. Silence.

And then he walks away.

I decide it's time for me to move on as well.

I've seen something in the programme maps and I want to check it out.

Back through the Quire, across the Lantern, through the North Transept, pausing for a moment to peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had to stand on my tippy-toes to catch a glimpse), up a short flight of stone steps, and then through a small and utterly unremarkable looking door. So unremarkable, I thought I might have taken a wrong turn, and was heading into some side office, or possibly an ancient cleaning cupboard. But no, the award stone corridor ends and I emerge into a palace of white marble. Every inch of the walls is carved into thousands of fluted channels and intricate flowers. And in the centre, a massive black tomb, surrounded by black railings, decorated with gold roses and initials.

I recognise the initials. Its the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

There's an actor in here too. She's dressed in khakis. I don't know what she's reciting. It's not terribly interesting. I wait for her to finish and go away, and then plunge forward to inspect the tomb.

There's a stone effigy laid out on the tomb. A white marble head, wearing a white marble ruff, resting on a white marble pillow. She's wearing a crown. It doesn't look very comfortable.

I look around. I'm alone. "Ignore the haters," I whisper. "Donizetti was a moron."

That's a lie. I don't do that. But I think it. Very hard.

I check the programme. My next stop was on the other side of Lady Chapel.

I squeeze myself through the crowds.

I can't even get into this room.

I wait, as an endless procession of slow-moving people files out.

I must have just missed a performance.

Eventually, the clown-car joke comes to an end and I'm able to enter the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Another marble effigy. Wearing another marble ruff. Resting on another marble pillow. The only difference between the two is the lack of a crown.

Even in death, they are the subject of comparison.

I look around for a sign as to why Mary Stuart is buried in London, but there's nothing.

That done, it was time for more Shakespeare. It didn't take me long to find it. In the next tomb is a young woman, dressed in a long blue gown. She's crying, gazing at a man with beseeching eyes. He looks really uncomfortable. His wife is finding it hilarious.

I see the same actor a few minutes later. She's not wearing the blue gown anymore. She's stripped down to a white shift. She's carrying what looks like a bunch of meadow grass and wandering around as if half in a dream. She stops a woman, and hands her a stem.

That must be Ophelia I think, hanging back to watch her with a professional interest.

She walks past me and catches my eye. She does not give me one of her meadow grasses.

I walk around again, catching sections of The Dream and Taming of the Shrew as I go. Young people wearing red or white roses circle the abbey, muttering about those blasted Montagues or Capulets as they go. Occasionally I see them sitting down with an audience member resting their feet on one of the chairs around the edges. Further in Ib spot two of them flirting with a woman via the medium of a sonnet - bouncing the rhyming couplets between the two of them as they take it in turns trying to win her hand and mock each other's attempts.

I'm retracing my steps back to the tombs. I fancy another look at Good Queen Bess. As I make my way, Martha Plimpton tries to rush past me with a basket, and asks me very sweetly to move aside.

I circle back round to the Quire. There's a huge crowd. As I get closer I can see why. There's Mark Rylance. He's doing a scene with Martha Plimpton and the basket.

It's Winter's Tale.

As they finish and hurry off and man sighs. "He's gone again," he says, before starting off after Rylance. He's not the only one. It looks like Rylance is now the head of a convoy of adoring fans.

I decide not to go off in pursuit.

But a minute later I'm bumping into them again. Rylance, Plimpton and the basket, at the unknown soldier's grave.

A trumpet sounds in the distance.

"Something is happening," says Plimpton, looking at us all. "Come," she says urging us forward a few steps, before turning around to stop us.

The Montagues and Capulet's come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see," she asks someone, before channelling a space and pushing them through to the front.

Rylance is doing the same.

He reaches deep into the crowd and pulls out an old lady. Her friend follows behind, taping her on the shoulder, her face scrunched up in glee. This is their moment. The rock star yanking them up on stage. The pair of them will be talking about that-time-Mark-Rylance-pulled-her-out-of-the-crowd for years to come.

Plimpton is now gesturing that the audience members in the front should sit in the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulet's are batteling with words. Not Shakespeare's though. These are original words. They urge us all to shake hands and make friends. The actors walk around our circle, clasping the audience's hands as they do so, before leading a procession, out through the huge doors.

A song strikes up. And Pharrell Williams' Happy chases us out into the last of the day's sunshine.

Read More

One Ring Circus

I’m outside Stratford Circus trying to take a photo of an angel in an upstairs window. I saw angel, but what I mean is a display of angelic looking white wings. And I saw trying, because there is a street cleaner with a trolley coming my way.

I pause, lowering my phone, waiting until he passes.

Except, he's not passing. He's aiming right for me.

I jump backwards, having visions of being run over but a cleaning trolley and having to spend the rest of time haunting the nearest bin. Max the Ground of Theatre Square. Doomed to spend eternity watching people rush excitedly into the neighbouring theatres of Stratford East and Stratford Circus, and never get to see a show. Feeding off the crumbs of gossip and old tickets that they leave behind.

But I didn't get hit. Instead, the trolley stopped. Directly in front of me. Blocking my shot.

Stratford clearly ain’t got time for any of this hipster Instagram nonsense.

Nor had I.

My show this evening has a 7pm start time, and I haven't even picked up my ticket yet.

I extricate myself from behind the trolley and dash across the road towards Stratford Circus. I'm so dazzled by the fluorescent orange banners flapping in the breeze I entirely miss the entrance and have to double back.

It's orange. The same hue as the banners. But with two strip lights set behind a wall of translucent orange plastic, angled to form an arrow that points directly towards the door. Blimey, I must be tired, walking right past this. There's even an A-frame set outside. "Stratford Circus Arts Centre," it reads, for those who need the extra help.

This does not bode well.

Oh well. There's nothing for it. I go inside, go to the box office (orangey-red), and pick up my ticket (not orange), and buy a programme (also not orange. Kinda blue-ish purple actually. And pink).

It's been a while since I last visited Stratford Circus. Years and years now that I come to think about it. So long, that I can't actually remember where the main theatre space is.

I look around.

The main foyer is packed. Mostly full of people queuing up at the bar. There's a staircase right next to the box office, leading up to what seems like an Escher-like series of galleries and mezzanines stretching up to the heavens.

I look up, shading my eyes against the thousands of tiny faerielights set into the ceiling of each level.

There's a big number 3 on the glass high above, with a smaller "Circus" above it. Circus 3. There's a Circus 3? Circus 2 I knew about. That's the studio space. And Circus 1 was where I was heading for. But what's Circus 3? And more importantly, how many circuses are there in this place?

I get out my phone. I have to know.

Theatre websites are surprisingly coy about their spaces. Rarely can you search a list of events by venue, and very often they won't even tell you the space it's in before you get to the booking page. Often I left clicking around, putting random tickets in my basket just to find out which shows are where, and giving box officers across London major headaches as tickets appear and disappear from their system as I do so.

You'd be surprised to know how many secondary studios I've only found out about because I saw a sign for them when I was in the building. Just like I was now.

But there's one place where you kind find this info. And that's the hires page.

I find it.

"Stratford Circus Arts Centre has a range of spaces that are perfect for meetings, live performances, celebration and training events," says the website. Great.

"C1 - Auditorium," reads the first one. That must be Circus 1. I've already got that covered. I move on. "C2 - Studio Theatre," is next. I don't got that covered, but it's on my list, so I'll get to it eventually. Onwards. "C3 - Dance Studio." There it is. Circus 3. It looks nice. "A large and airy rehearsal space with sprung dance floor, mirrors and adjustable blinds; adaptable for a variety of events including classes, rehearsals, workshops and performance." Performance, It's suitable for performance. Shit. Does it need to go on the list? It probably needs to go on the list. Do they programme things there? How do I even check? I mean, apart from the adding random tickets from every single show into my basket...

I quickly close the tab. I'm not going to add it to the list. What I'm going to do it pretend that this never happened, and you are too. And if you even mention the fact that there is a C4 (Multi-purpose space) on the website, I'm going to have to take a course of action that you won't like, and I won't be held responsible for.

Enough of that. I put my phone away and turn around. There appears to be a queue. A very long queue. But this one doesn't lead to the bar. People are looking at their tickets and stuffing the remains of half-eaten sandwiches into their mouths. It looks like we're going in. I find the end of the line and add myself to it. At least the question of where is Circus 1 is not something I have to worry about anymore.

Circus 1, it turns out, is on the ground floor. As is the stage, which is on floor level, leaving a large back of bench seats to rise up from it. There's also a couple of narrow circles above us, but those seem to be closed off.

"This is so cool," someone whispers loudly as we all try to figure out where we want to sit.

They're not wrong. It is pretty cool.

There's a boxing ring set up on the stage, and its surrounded but young people dancing like butterflies and stinging like bees. I find a seat in the middle of the fourth row and try to look like the sort of person who understands boxing.

It doesn't work.

So instead I pull my fan out of my bag and try to cool off. If I'm not going to be someone who looks like they understand or partakes in sport, I might as well embrace it and run full tilt in the other direction. Well, I say run, but perhaps stumble slowly is more my style. Or "adagio walking," as a dance critic once described my prefered level of exertions.

I do kind of like the idea of seeing two people deck each other though. I mean... that's kinda why I wanted to see this. Libby Liburd's Fighter is billed as a play about female boxers fighting for the right to... well, fight. Which I am well into. Just because of my own physical cowardice, doesn't mean that I don't have a hefty appreciation of those that are willing to take a punch in the name of feminism in other people.

And oof, Libby Liburd's Lee is willing to take a punch, both literal and metaphorical. There's no keeping her down.

The clock roles back twenty-one years, and she bounces into Tommy's Gym, shiny new gym back and smart mouth at the ready. Neither of which get her very far in the world of ninety's boxing gyms. Woman have only been allowed to fight (allowed!) for two years and the message hasn't quite filtered down to the local gym level quite yet.

But she's got the babysitter in and she's not to be turned away. Or at least, not for long. As she's back the next day, and the next, and the next. It's 1998 and the Spice Girls have been preaching the gospel of Girl Power for four years now. There's nothing Lee can't do, and she's got the brand new Lonsdale top to prove it.

Nothing can stop her.

Almost nothing.

Except for the Achilles' heel of the single-mother.

That's where Lee's real fight begins.

And I'm feeling it. The empowerment. The Girl Power. Lee can do anything, and by extension, I can do everything.

I feel myself puffing up with second-hand pride.

The big fight scene's coming. Eye of the Tiger is pounding through the sound system. Lee is coming down the steps of the stalls, the spotlight bouncing off her pink satin robe and...

Lights dim. The scene changes. We're flung forward in time. Back to 2019.

The boxing ring is full of cute kids practising their swings.

Oh. No fight? I deflate back to normal size. I mean... fine. I get it. But I was all psyched up to see two ladies punching each other and now... okay.

Just have to settle for feeling all empowered and shit. Which is alright. I suppose.

Read More

She smelt a ghost (and she liked it)

Helen is standing in The Charterhouse courtyard. It’s early evening and the shadows are creeping their way up the old stone walls. The cherry blossom is swirling.

It’s like something out of a dream.

Not my dreams. My dreams usually involve me fleeing my childhood home, chased by some unseen figure. And being unable to close doors because they are too small to fit the frame.

Please don’t psychoanalyse me.

Anyway, it’s like something out someone else’s dream. The dream of a fictional character, rendered for the screen by a director with a large locations budget and a problematic CGI habit.

“This is just…” I say.

Helen spreads out her arms to encompass this magnitude of fairytailness that we had found ourselves in.

“You’ll like this,” she says, showing my something.

It’s a small piece of black card, with the letter C inscribed on it in gold sharpie.

It’s a ticket! An actual ticket!

Helen’s right. I do like this.

I want to get my own. We go inside. I’m immediately disappointed.

Modern. Everything is modern. The type of modern that looks like it was bought in baulk from an IKEA showroom. Acres of pale blond wood, punctuated by recessed lights.

I take my C-marked ticket with bad grace.

There's some sort of merch table action going on. We bypass it and make our way into the next room and... oh, yeah. That's the stuff. A wooden staircase, all boxy sides and wooden hounds guarding the lintels. Leaded windows. Towering paintings. And a statue of some dude in a ruff, who is possibly James I, but my history isn't good enough to confirm it, snuggling up against a hi-vis jacket. Helen makes short work of identifying the kings in the portraits, but I'm not wearing my glasses so I have to take her word for it.

"If you'd like to step into the library, there's a bar," says a woman with a bright smile. "You can stay here if you like, but..."

Nope. I'm done with this room. I want to see what else is in this place.

"I don't want to be one of those wankers that only likes old buildings," I say to Helen as I pause to take a photo of a door. "But I really like old buildings."

"I really like old buildings too."

"I have a theory," I start, as a theory has just occurred to me. "Ugly buildings get torn down. So only the nice old buildings survive. Apart from the Coliseum. But the Coliseum is so fucking ugly, it's actually fabulous." And anyway, the Coli isn't anywhere near as old as this fucking building.

Helen grabs me, saving an old lady from going flying as I turn around and around, trying to take in everything about this new room, all at once. The windows! The portraits! The fireplace! Oh my fucking god, look at that fuking fireplace. I could roast an entire hog in that damn thing.

But instead of a hog, there's a trunk inside. The wood so darkened by age it looks almost black.

I'm fairly confident there's a skeleton inside. Or possibly a pile of letters incriminating a minor lord of treason. I really want to open it to find out, but there are too many people around. (Helen grabs my arm again, saving yet another old lady from having to perform a three-point airborne manoeuvre).

The towering fireplace on one side is matched by a no less impressive door on the other. Short and squat, it looks designed for someone who barely clears five foot tall, but passed that loop on their belt-size centuries ago. I imagine a pair of liveried servants heaving with a specially designed stick, to lever their rotund master through the doorway, where he would emerge on the other side with a satisfying POP.

Helen offers to buy me a drink. I suspect in an effort to save the old ladies of the audience from further incident.

The bar is set up on a long table, with an arrangement so elaborate it must look spectacular in The Charterhouse's wedding brochure. Endless rows of shiny glassware are balanced on upturned crates. There's a smart little price list nestled next to the tumbers.

Wine. Beer. Soft drinks.

The holy trinity of pop-up bars everywhere.

I'm not much of a wine drinker even at the best of times, but drinking out of one of these squeaky clean glasses in this environment strikes me as ridiculous. Wine should be drunk out of a goblet. Or perhaps a cup carved from horn. Not glass that's been run through the dishwasher with extra rinse aid.

"What are the soft drinks?" asks Helen.

We investigate.

Two jugs. One orange. The other looking so watered down it could only be elderflower. No ice. Warm elderflower. Quite possibly the least appetising thing in the world. Next to warm orange juice that is. I pass, and return to admiring the fireplace.

"Okay, I'll take it," I announce to The Charterhouse in general. "I'll move in. Do you think they ever need those Guardian people? I could do that."

People are beginning to head upstairs. We follow them.

"Very Liberty," says Helen, examining the hound's head fixed on the top of the balustrade.

She's right. It is very Liberty. Although a bit lacking in the soft furnishings department. Or any department. This is a beautiful building, but a rubbish shop.

"Go ahead," offers Helen as a dapper-looking gentleman with a walking-stick waits for us to go in.

He indicates that we are the ones that should go, instigating a battle of politeness between the two of them.

I smile. This is a game the gentleman with a walking stick can't possibly win. I've seen Helen use her ruthless friendliness in action before. He's not playing with an amateur here.

But then he draws out a trump card so shocking I'm left reeling.

"I live here," he announces.

I'm sorry, you what?

"You live here?" asks Helen, clearly also requiring some clarification on the matter.

He doesn't offer any, other than confirming that he does indeed live here.

I didn't realise that was an actual option.

I can't let this opportunity go to waste. "Well, if you ever need a roommate..."

He laughs. "Promises. Promises."

That settled, we move on, following the crowd through a dark antechamber and then...

"Wow."

I mean... wow is pretty much the only response you can have to a room like this.

Helen is the first to find her voice.

"Look at the tapestries!" says Helen. "Actual, real tapestries."

"Look at the ceiling!" I respond.

Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

The chandeliers! The walls! The floor!

The fireplace!

If I thought the one downstairs was impressive, the one here is on a whole different level. Extending from wooden floor to intricately moulded ceiling, the fireplace is an extravaganza of religious carvings and inlays, picked out with gilt. There's a stone surround. And a brick backing. And suddenly I understand that woman who married the Eiffel Tower, because I am in love with this fireplace and ready for commitment.

"C?" says the woman on the door, seeing our tickets. "You're in the section right at the back."

We head right to the back, picking our way around the reflective stage that lies like a shimmering pool in the centre of the room.

Two rows of seating lie either side of the stage, with the section at the back is slightly separated from the main body, set at an angle and tucked away beside the piano.

"Where do you want to sit?" I ask.

Helen slides into the second row, but I pause.

There's no rake. If I've leant one thing on this marathon, it's to be very careful choosing a seat when there's no rake.

"What about sitting on the platform?" I ask.

The last row, right at the back, and almost around the corner, is raised on a high platform. But I suspect that its inferior placement will be more than compensated for by the extra height.

We try it out.

I'm right.

The view is staggering. From our elevated position, we have a clear view right down the stage. I can see everything. I feel like a king upon his throne. No, better yet: a queen.

I get out my fan. It's very warm up there. ("Don't faint," warns Helen. She knows I have form.) It's cooling, but more importantly, adds to the whole regal thing I've got going on.

A lady comes out. I lean back in my chair. I'm used to this drill. I've already seen this show. Back at the Old Church. And due to marathons beyond my control, I'm seeing it again. I would be mad at OperaUpClose for programming two London dates on their Maria Stuarda tour, but I'm sitting in the most beautiful room I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to get worked up about it at this point.

"The very room that Elizabeth herself met with her council," she says. "As she will later on in the opera."

I sit up. What the what?

Elizabeth? Here? In this room?

Holy...

The opera begins. Donizetti is doing the very most. Epic sound fills the room, pressing us back against our seats. It's hard to remember to breath.

The piano is right next to us, and the pianist is flicking pages, conducting, and pounding out those notes in a fever of motion.

With Helen next to me, I get the giggles as Leicester bangs on about Mary's beauty to Talbot. "Ah, the poor woman!" he says. "And she was such a beauty." As if beauty enhances tragedy.

Helen leans into me. "Leicester is a fucking idiot," she whispers.

I nod.

Leicester is a fucking idiot.

Oh, Donizetti. Your music is gorgeous, but you really don't know the fuck about anything.

I'm so glad Helen is here. I just knew this opera would rile her up. And no one gets riled up more eloquently than Helen.

Ignoring the sign that states very clearly that only staff and brothers are allowed past that point, I step onto the mezzanine and look down at the foyer below.

 

“But the sign said brothers,” says Helen, her mind always whirring. “It’s it still a religious order?”

Although I love the present tense, writing in it can be a total mind-fuck. Anyway, hello. I bring Do not be afraid. I bring great news. It turns out you totally can live at The Charterhouse. If you are over sixty. Don't have any money. But also don't owe any money. And some other rules that are too tedious to list here. I'm a little young to put in my application at the moment, but now that I finally have a goal worth pursuing in my life, I will be dedicating the next twenty-eight years to being poor (check) and paying off my credit card (no-cheque).

Read More

So Pissed that I've already used "You’re in a cult; call your dad" as a Title

"If you don't understand it then I sure as hell don't understand it."

That's Helen after I try to explain the mystery that is Theatro Technis to her.

It's not often that I'm left stumped by a theatre, and I have never been as stumped by a theatre as I am by Teatro Technis.

It started early. Right from the moment I first go on the Theatro's website, I'm inflicted with the huge image of a Greek mask, rendered in black and white, and staring out of my screen. I quickly scroll down. That's far too terrifying an image for my innocent eyes. I only went there to find out what shows they had, not test my bladder control.

Further down there's some text about the theatre. Always helpful. "Independent theatre in Camden," it says. Nice. I like it. To the point. Helpful even.

I carry on, greedy for more intel about this new-to-me theatre. "'Teatro' speaks for itself," it starts. I'm not so sure about that, but let's press on. "'Technis' is an ancient Greek word. It come from a time when people made no distinction between art, work and craft. People didn't make theatre for money, they had to live, yes -but the work itself was rewarded enough. It was important then to have passion for what you were doing and to believe that your work benefited others too. That is Theatro Technis."

Right. Well, ignoring the typos, which I swear to god are not mine, that's a whole lot of words adding up to not a lot.

I decide not to dwell on it and keep scrolling. And keep scrolling. God damn. Does this theatre have any shows, or does it just specialise in the production of grammatically suspect manifestos?

I'm beginning to think there must be more to it. With every "Learn More" link leading me to ever more obtusely written pages, and no sign of a show to book, I am growing ever more suspicious. A number of conspiracy theories peek out from behind the Greek masks. "Perhaps it's a front," one of them suggests. "Who could ever suspect a small fringe venue as a location for shady drug deals?" The second one shakes her head. "Nope," she says. "You just can't translate Theatro. It's actually a corruption of the word thearchy, meaning ruled by the gods." She looks very smug about this theory. "It's a cult," she adds, just to make sure we all got it. The third one doesn't look impressed. "It's a hipster cafe," he says. "Tro is short for trophy. They only serve award-winning teas. Tea-tro. Get it? The Technis just means they won't kick you out for using plugging into your charger to the wall-socket."

Well, that's enough of them. I always find it pays not to listen to the voices in your head.

Moving on.

I eventually found a show and booked myself in. Despite all their best efforts to put me off, I was going. I have a marathon to complete and no amount of menacing mask images are going to put me off.

Besides, I had my own, slightly more mundane, conspiracy theory. That the website was part of the experience. Like when Punchdrunk has a new show. It sets the mood. Provides an atmosphere. Gets you in the right frame of mind for your visit. And if a certain queasiness in the stomach area was what they wanted to provoke in their audiences, well... they have certainly achieved that with me.

So, off I went, negotiating the crowds in Camden until I found myself on a quiet road, with a tall townhouse marked Teatro Technis half way down it. It's an interesting looking building. There's some sort of religious statue action going on over the front door. And the black wall down the side makes me think it used to have a neighbour that has since been disposed of.

There's also a sign. "THEATRE ENTRANCE," it says, in all caps, with an arrow pointing metal railing, behind which there is a wide alleyway with a door at the end of it.

Well, okay then. We weren't going through the statue-guarded front door. Down the creepy alleyway it is, then.

Inside, there's a small table, which I can only presume is the box office. But it's empty of both people and paper. Not the box office then. On the opposite end, there's a bar.

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

I'm taken aback. I mean, yes, I have an interesting surname. But my first name isn't usually ready to go at the front of strangers' memories.

I soon find out the reason for this immediate recognition. There's a print-out of the online bookers. There's me, at the bottom, being ticked off as I watch. Above me, there's only one other name. Two advance bookers. Oh dear.

Forget the masks and the alleyway. That's my worst fear: being in an audience with only one other person. Or even worse. Just me.

Thankfully, we are not there. Not quite yet. There are a few people more hanging out in this foyer.

I look around, trying to work this place out.

The door to the theatre is to the right of the bar. There's a door to the loos on the left.

Which begs the question - where's the townhouse? I'll admit, my geography isn't that great. But even I can't be this badly turned around. The saintly townhouse should be on the left as well, but unless those are some exceedingly luxuriously proportioned toilets, it can't be. Which means the two buildings are separate. Which in turn means... well, I don't know.

A couple push their way through the loo doors. They're each holding a glass of wine.

My pet conspiracy theorists each shrug. This is a mystery too big even for them.

The house opens. It's time to go in.

The room is large. And old. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two blocked off fireplaces behind the main bank of seats. It looks like an old village schoolroom, although given the statue on the main building, I presume it must be church related in origin.

I find a spot in the second row.

There aren't two of us watching the show. Or even four.

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

Light from the corridor floods in, as does the sound of glasses and chatter from the bar. By the sounds of it, there are more people out there than in here.

A woman sitting in my row stands up and tries to wave to the person in the tech booth, set high in the wall, but there's not much the tech person can do.

A latecomer arrives. The woman waves and points frantically at the door. He doesn't understand. He ducks his head and hurries into a seat.

The woman looks around, clearly ready to storm across the stage and close the door herself. But she is blocked in on either side. She sits down again and we spend the next few minutes listening to the talk over at the bar while the actors hold some kind of meditation circle.

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

I shift uncomfortably in my chair. My pet conspiracy theorists are nodding knowingly. It was all a test. A series of challenges designed to ensure that only the most dedicated would come here. The cryptic website with its unnerving masks. The impossible floorplan. And now this play. It was like those people hawking personality tests outside the Scientology Centre on Tottenham Court Road. "Come, watch a play. Perhaps you might discover something about yourself."

The thing that I was fast discovering about myself is that I wanted to get out of there. Right now.

I try and concentrate on the play. The cult on stage is falling apart but the one in the audience is growing ever stronger.

More people come in. A large group. Halfway through the play and suddenly the audience has doubled in numbers.

I look over. They're all young and shiny-faced, glowing with some inner contentment.

The perfect example of a cult member.

I can't look for long. The lighting cues are all over the place. One part of the room is illuminated for a scene, then another joins in to greet the arrival of more actors to the same scene. Too often we're plunged into darkness, left alone to stare unseeing at an empty stage. I am convinced they are trying to break my will.

When the play ends, my instinct is to make a burst for the exit. But I hold back, waiting for the young people to gather their things and leave.

Eventually, the path is clear and I get up, walking straight towards the exit, pushing them open without a backwards glance.

I don't turn back. Not until I'm safely in Mornington Crescent tube station. I jump onto the first train to arrive, not caring what branch it's travelling on. I just want to get as far away as possible.

Read More

Dance to the Music of Time

Going to see a show at a venue that you used to work for is like going back to your old school to pick up your exam results. You're kinda excited about the possibilities, but that's buried deep under a mountain of fear, trepidation, and the deep conviction that you never wanted to see any of these people ever again, and you've somehow managed to forget all their names over the past three weeks.

I'm not saying that's how I felt walking to Canada Water Culture Space, but I'm also not not saying it.

Thankfully, a lot of time has passed since my time here, and everyone I knew has now moved on. But that didn't stop them popping into my head to say hello as the ship-shaped building appeared around the corner. So intense was that feeling of their presence, I could swear that I could hear them squawking in the distance. I decide to go check, crossing over the small terrace outside the building towards the water of Canda Water. I look down over the railing. Yup. There they are, tossing their heads and doing their very best to pretend that they had never seen me before and we definitely didn't spend our lunchtimes together on the reg. Ducking bastards.

Well, two can play at that game. I leave them to their ducking rude behaviour and go inside.

Everything is just as I remember it. The cafe on one side. The bar on the other. The bright orange walls, and the spiralling staircase. There's the doors which will take you up to the offices. And on the right are the ones that lead to the auditorium. Go further in and you will find bookshelves. Because CWCS just a theatre. It's also a library. Or rather, it's a library and a theatre. I'd say the ration between library and theatre is probably 85:15. So really, it more library than theatre. A library with a theatre attached, if you will.

Even so, there's the disconcerting shift. Where everything is the same enough to be recognisable, but just different enough to confuse and make me question things.

Like, where the hell is the box office?

I'd expected there to be someone with a laptop and a box of admission passes on the end of the bar. But there's nothing at the end of the bar apart from bar.

I'm not the only one looking around.

"I don't know, mate," says a bloke. He looks at his phone. "Ground floor it says."

A woman arrives. She's involved with the show. I can tell she's involved with the show because she spends the next five minutes loudly saying hello to people she recognises.

"I'm just going to pick up my ticket. I'll be right back," she declares with a regal wave of the hand before disappearing off towards the library half of the foyer.

Ah. I can see where she's going. There's a small desk set up over there, dwarfed and in the shadow of the library's one. What do we call that? The lending desk? The circulation desk? The desk you take the books to? Well, that one.

Stuck to the front of the small desk is a small sign. Box Office it says. I'm in the right place.

CWCS has gone up in the world since my day.

A real box office. Amazing. There are even freesheets piled up on the corner, just waiting to be picked up.

When I get to the front of the queue I give my name.

Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition.

"Here you go," says the girl on box office, handing me an admission token as if I were just some regular punter coming to see a show.

My fantasies that there might be some plaque dedicated to all my hard work somewhere in the halls of the building upstairs, perhaps something tasteful next to the kettle in the kitchen, are dashed.

"Thanks," I say, and move away to lick my wounds in peace.

I turn over the admission pass in my hands. These things have improved too. Gone are the laminated logos of four years ago. Printed on the photocopier and cut out by hand. They're now heavy plastic cards. Gold heavy plastic cards.

I put it in my pocket and turn my attention to the freesheet. It follows the standard formula. One I use myself when making these things: title and company name, then intro, then credits, then supporters. Simple, effective, and nothing out of the ordinary, except for the largest arts council logo I have ever seen in my life. They must have been extremely grateful for that funding.

This gets folded and put in my pocket too.

There's a long queue at the bar.

I want to recommend the matcha lattes. Matcha lattes were my drink of choice when I worked here. Me and the other girl in the office would go up onto the roof on sunny afternoons to drink the obscenely green froth and watch the reflection of the clouds pass across the high glass towers. Now that I think of it, I'm not entirely sure we were allowed to be on the roof, matcha lattes or no. But hey, it was a while back, and I'm sure the statute of limitations on roof-matcha drinking has now passed.

I try looking back through my old photos to find of the view, but all I have turn up is one of a duck on the roof. I don't plan on apologising though. You're getting a picture of a duck on a roof.

Oh dear. I seem to have spent a little too long on anecdote island. People are going in.

I follow them.

CWCS is a strange venue. And not just because it's inside a library. There are two banks of seating, but they are not on opposite sides of the stage as you might expect, but angled either side of an aisle, so that they hug the diamond-shaped stage like the setting of a ring.

I don't remember where the best seats are anymore, so I pick a spot near the aisle on the third row. It looks as good as any other.

To seats are slow to fill up. The queue at the bar is clearly in still in full force.

But there's loud music playing and the mood is high. Bonnie Tyler tends to have that effect on people, and I Need a Hero is an absolute banger of a tune.

Even the front of houser on door duty is getting in the mood, mouthing along to the lyrics.

"We went around twice and couldn't find it," laughs someone sitting behind me. "I was like, is it in the library...?"

Yeah, this place really needs better signage out there.

Still, plenty of people have managed to find it. The house looks full. Which is definitely different to how it was in my day. Though to be fair, it was all folk-music and flamenco back then. Nothing like the show on tonight, which from the looks of the freesheet features a spoken word artist and "two acrobatic dancers." Sounds good, although I'm not entirely sure what acrobatic dancers are. There aren't any biogs to draw clues from, but judging from the twitter handle of one of them, she's a b-girl. I guess that explains it. Breakin is fairly fucking acrobatic.

The spoken word artist comes out. He's Adam Kammerling and he's doing a show about masculinity and violence. He introduces the two dancers: Si Rawlinson, who was drafted in at the last minute, and the b-girl, Emma Houston, who trained in contemporary dance. Then he points to the tech desk. Rachel will be doing the lighting, and playing the role of his mother. I look over. Oh my god! It's Rachel Finney! I know her! Well, I mean. Know in the sense that we worked in the same place for a while. Aww. That's nice.

Introductions done, Adam invites the audience to heckle him.

I slip down in my seat, praying that it won't be that kind of show.

It's not. After Adam gets his heckle ("Cut your hair!") we're allowed to relax, or as much as one can relax in a super pumped audience.

Kammerling tells stories from his childhood back in Somerset and as a fellow Somerseter, I feel an instant kinship. Even if I ran with the young-farmers crowd rather than the car-park kids, some experiences are universal, even to those who grew up outside the confines of the West Country. I mean, haven't we all gone on Mission Impossible style expeditions to secure the new box of cereal from the top shelf? I didn't have the benefit of two dancer side-kicks though.

And oh god, the dancers are cool. Playing brothers and friends and bullies and furniture, they preen and pose and punch as Kammerling tells his tales. There are not mere props in a spoken word performance. Something to look at while we listen to Kammerlong's words. We all wince and groan as Rawlinson tells a story about falling during a performance, and laugh as the pair of them lend their knees as a seat for Kammerling.

They definitely didn't have shit like this in my day.

After the show, it's only a matter of going out one door and heading straight through another as I rush into the tube station that lurks directly underneath the building.

Part library. Part theatre. Part tube station. And built like a ship. That's CWCS. The weirdest damn theatre in London.

Read More

Etcetera, etcetera and so forth

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undetermined. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.

I’m there on the right night.

Believe me.

I’ve checked. Multiple times.

The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.

“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.

I don’t smoke.

“So, what’s your name then?”

Christ. Do we really have to do this?

I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.

So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.

I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.

I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.

"That bad?" I'd laughed.

"No. Just... um..."

I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...

There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.

I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.

The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.

Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.

I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.

Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.

Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to go. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.

And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.

Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etetcerta theatre signed off tonight.

If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.

It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.

That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.

Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.

But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.

"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.

Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.

It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).

It's nice out here. Quite despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.

"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etercera Theare, subject to availability."

That's clever. I like that.

The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.

I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.

Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.

The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.

The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.

The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.

There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club.

Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.

I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.

"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.

She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."

It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to move down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.

Silence.

Is it starting?

A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.

She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.

Everyone seems a little nervous.

I think it's the set.

Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.

It's a school room.

I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.

Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I was well up for that.

Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...

Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.

But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they tried to get as far way from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.

What it is is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.

Like the protagonist of Killymuck at the bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.

I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.

When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.

What a difference an hour makes.

Read More

Don't cry over spilt water

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms in Camden looking at my phone. I’ve just spent the last five minutes taking photos of the exterior and I’m now checking them to make sure they didn’t come out too fuzzy or too dark. I’m not much of a photographer, but I try.

There’s a theatre in this pub. Not that you get much of a sense of that from the outside. Not proud proclamations of being a theatre pub up from the sign. No posters in the window. Not hanging banners. All we get is an A-frame sign in the doorway with the Etcetera Theatre street-sign inspired logo, and the listings of the upcoming shows stuck beneath.

I zoom into the image, checking that the logo was legible.

It was. I know I bang on about it, but I really love the Pixel 2.

But something catches my eye. Something small. I spread my fingers, enlarging the image even more.

There, on the image announcing the show I’m there to see, is a line of text. The date. Tomorrow’s date.

I spin around. Looking at the poster in real life doesn’t help. It still says Wednesday 17th April.

Today is Tuesday.

I had turned up on the wrong day.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shitshitshit.

Okay. Don’t panic. It’s fine. The show had an early start. It wasn’t even 7pm yet. I had time to get to wherever I was supposed to be.

Probably.

I bring up my spreadsheet on my phone. Tuesday / 16.04.19 / Evening / Etcetera Theatre.

Gawdammit.

It was the spreadsheet that was wrong. The one thing that stood between me and total marathon-chaos had failed.

Breathe, Maxine.

Think.

I could move Wednesday’s outing. It was a non-marathon thing anyway.

Fine.

But what about tonight?

I suddenly had a free evening. I could go home. Eat a proper dinner. May even, and this was really out there, do some laundry.

I start walking towards the tube station. If I’m quick, I could be home before 7.45pm. I could get at least two loads done before bed time. That’s woollens and whites. I’m almost bouncing with brimming potential.

And then I remember.

Eight theatres. I’d just found eight London-based, marathon-qualified, theatres that needed to be added to the list. A list that had already grown by twelve theatres over the weekend. 275 theatres. Plus eight that still need to be added to the website. 283 theatres.

Tonight was supposed to be theatre number 105.

That leaves… I’m too stressed to maths. It’s… a lot of theatres still to go by the end of the year.

I couldn’t let this evening go to waste on dinner and laundry. Not without a fight.

I retrieve my phone from my pocket, and recheck the spreadsheet. Could I move something up? Tricky.

I swipe the spreadsheet away and open up TodayTix instead. Perhaps there’s a bargain going in the West End. I can still make it if I get on the tube, like, right now.

Nothing. Booking has closed for the night.

Shit.

What else?

I’m scrolling back and forth through my apps, as if one called Free Ticket Anyone Facing A Spreadsheet Fail might leap out from between the icons.

I pause.

There is something.

My Maps.

If you’ve ever visited the home page of my website, you might have noticed the map there. It has all (well, nearly all, I don’t update it nearly enough) of the marathon venues there. Red for the ones I’ve been to. Yellow for the ones I still need to visit.

I open it.

There are three theatres within a mile of the Etcertera. The Roundhouse. Teatro Technis. And The Lion and the Unicorn.

I start Googling.

Nothing at the Roundhouse. It’s dark tonight.

Teatro Technis’ show doesn’t open until Friday.

With shaking fingers I click my way to The Lion and Unicorn’s website.

Thank god. They have a show.

What time is it? Past seven. They might have already printed out the lists for tonight. I would have to turn up and hope I could buy a ticket on the door.

Was I really doing this?

Breathe.

Think.

Fuck it. No time for that.

Run!

I pelt it down Camden High Street, barely waiting for the lights to change as I turn right, then right again onto Kentish Town Road.

What street is in on again? Gainsford Road? Over there. Another right.

I slow down, catching my breath.

After the clutter and filth of Kentish Town Road, I seem to have stumbled into some middle class oasis. Tall stuccoed town houses line the streets. There are trees. I can even hear birdsong.

And there it is. Coming up on the left.

The Lion & Unicorn Pub.

I have never been so grateful to see a pub in my life.

There’s a chalkboard in the window, proudly proclaiming what’s on this month in the theatre.

I go instead.

“Theatre This Way” says a helpful little sign over a small door.

I go through, and find a makeshift box office balanced on a ledge beside the stairs.

“Err. Can I buy a ticket?” I ask, realised that I have no idea what show is actually on. That didn’t seem a particularly important factor up until now.

Turns out I could.

It’s been a long time since I bought a ticket in person. Turns out it’s a bit of a faff.

“Can I take your email?” asks the guy on ledge-duty, to whom I can only apologise to for making him type in my entire fucking email address on a tablet. That is not a fate that I would wish on anyone.

“First name Max I take it?”

He can.

“And surname Smiles?”

Yup.

“That's a nice surname.”

It is.

“Do you want to join the mailing list? Don't feel you have to say yes. I never do.”

Well, I would, but I won't be able to return until next year so… Probably best not to explain all that. I just cringe and decline.

Should I ask what the show is? Bit late, now that I’ve already bought my ticket. Might come off as a little… weird. I’m already coming off as weird. I should just keep quiet.

It’ll be a nice surprise, whatever it is.

I hate surprises.

That was the whole point of the spreadsheet.

“House should open in five or six minutes. Bar just through there, loos downstairs.”

I have a walk around the pub.

It’s nice in here. Very nice. A bit fancy even.

The walls are papered in a caviar print.

There’s black and white tiles near the bar.

And large wooden tables.

And… a dog bowl? Two dog bowls?

That’s either a sign that they are supremely dog friendly or… oh my god. There’s a dog. There’s a dog in the pub. He’s walking around, getting pets from the patron. Oh, my lord he’s cute. And blonde. With curly fur.

My second pub theatre dog this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

He walks past me and I give him a little pat.

He’s not impressed by my pats. He’s probably had hundreds of them already today.

He moves on.

The bell rings. The house is open.

“You just bought a ticket,”ledge-guy confirms, pointing at me as I go through the door. “We try and be paper free.”

Up the stairs, past a row of tasteful looking show posters (this place really is fancy…), following someone who looks like she knows where she’s going.

She opens a door. It does not lead to a theatre. Ummm.

We get pointed in the right direction. Which is, in fact, left.

Ah. Here we are. The theatre.

Larger than I expected. Much larger than any pub theatre I’ve ever been in.

So fucking fancy.

There is a freesheet placed on every single sheet. The sure sigh of a classy establishment.

I chose the first row with a proper rake. It’s the fifth row. After so many teeny-tiny pub theatres, this ends up feeling very far away. Fifth row and I'm complaining. Fifth row with suburb leg room. God this place is so fucking classy.

At 7.33 the bell rings again, and the last stragglers are chivvied upstairs.

It’s not often you get double-bell action outside of places like the Opera House.

So. Fucking. Fancy.

I pick up my freesheet and have a look.

Turns out I was there for Hatch Scratch. A night of new writing.

Cool.

A woman comes to the front of the stage. The plays have all been written around the theme of “taboo.”

Double cool.

The first play of the night if about social anxiety, which I take as a personal attack. Bloody playwrights, bringing real things to life on the stage.

On the list of taboos we also have child abandonment, ISIS brides and a mother struggling to cope with her child who has disabilities (“I’m a cunt,” she announces, which surely has to be the best opening line to a play, ever).

Ledge-guy reappears. “If you can all vacate the space, I’ll bring you back up after the interval.”

We all march downstairs. The actors are already there, at their own table, eating chips.

Good as his word, the ledge-guy rings the bell again. “The house is now open for act two of Hatch.”

We all heave ourselves up and head back towards the stairs.

“Please be careful on the stairs, there's a little spillage,” says the ledge-guy. There is indeed a small dribble of water on the steps. At least, I hope its water. I side-step it.

The second half is packed with more taboos. Suicide and masturbation (in the same play, which is quite the twofer), polyamory, and abortion. Plus, and I shudder to write this one down, chia-eaters.

I’ve seen a lot of scratch nights in my time. A lot of terrible scratch nights.

I don’t know how to take this one. The writing is good. The acting excellent.

Where are the crumpled scripts hanging out of back pockets? Where is the badly edited music padding out half-written scenes? Where are the rushed endings, and poor characterisation, and jokes that don’t land? What? Am I supposed to laugh at this funny lines that are being delivered perfectly?

Fucking amateurs.

As the actors all file back in to take their bows I can see that the stage is exactly fourteen actors wide, which is a hella impressive width for a pub theatre stage. Fancy fuckers.

Ledge-guy appears to thank the company. I’m feeling a bit bad about thinking of him as the ledge-guy now.

“I'll be standing just outside with a Magic bucket. So if you have any share change, notes, coins, anything...”

Okay, ledge-guy. I just spent twelve quid on a ticket that I was forced to buy because I’m an idiot. I realise that’s not your fault, but I’m fresh out of funds for the week.

“Please take your glasses with you. It makes our lives that bit easier.”

He disappears through the door to rattle his magic bucket.

There’s a regular ping as coins bounce off the bottom. So I don’t feel too bad about not contributing my own ping.

Next time. I promise.

Seriously though. The Lion & Unicorn is fancy as fuck.

Read More

No Sense

“Wait for the bell. Go upstairs. Sit where you like. You can take in a drink.”

I’m in the Old Red Lion pub. The granddaddy of them all when it comes to pub theatres. And these are the instructions I’m given as the box office lady picks up one of the laminated admission tokens from a pile on the counter and hands it to me.

I’m grateful for them. The instructions I mean. This evening sounds like it’s going to be a bit challenging on the old brain-front, and I think I’m going to need all the guidance I can get.

I’m here for Theatre Without Sight or Sound, which I’m going to admit right out, is a bit naughty of me. I mentioned a few posts back that I have rules, and I have rules: the official ones, and the not-so-official-but-equally-valid ones. One of those unofficial rules is that I try to avoid seeing hires. Then XXX days later, what am I doing? I’m booking for a show listed in the visiting companies section of the theatre’s website, that’s what.

In my defence - I thought it would make a good blog post. Yup. That’s it. I wanted to write about it. That’s my reason.

Anyway, they’re my not-technically-the-rules, and I’ll break them if I damn well please.

I grab a sofa. One of those leather chesterfields that make you feel like you’re waiting to tell than nice Dr Watson and his creepy acquaintance all about your missing Aunt Gertrude. It’s curiously unoccupied, until I realise that it’s positioned to face the loos.

After the second time I get my foot trodden on by someone with a bladder even weaker than their eyesight, I realise that I should probably move. After the third time my stubbiness kicks in and I sink defiantly into the cushions. On the fourth time my toes get squashed, I’m ready to do some squashing of my own…

The bell rings.

There’s now a queue to get into the theatre, and from my position on the sofa, I seem to now be right at the front of it.

I consider feeling guilty about this but, hey, I’ve had my foot trodden on four times and I didn’t even hit anyone. I deserve this.

We traipse upstairs. Old show posters are wallpapered up the steps. They date back to the nineties, when tickets were a fiver, and London still had a 0171 area code.

The corridor upstairs is red. Very red. Pub theatre red, as I’m now starting to think of it.

“Put this on,” says a woman by the door to the theatre, handing me a blindfold fresh out of the packet.

I decide that this instruction is one that needs a little delay before following through on. There’s still the matter of finding my seat to get through first.

The seating at the ORL is built up on two sides. They’re made up of wooden benches, akin to church pews but significantly less wholesome looking. Something about the addition of the buttoned red fabric makes it look distinctly debauched. These benches must have seen a lot over the years.

I go for the second row, opposite the door. I like to be able to keep an eye on the exit. Especially for the type of show where you get handed a blindfold. There’s no telling what might happen at the type of show where you get handed a blindfold.

Thankfully, we have someone to explain.

The first three plays of the evening are to be performed without sight (that’s where the blindfolds come in). After an interval, they’ll be another set of three - these ones without sound.

“Try to keep the blind folds on to preserve the theatre magic. But if you need to rub your eye, that's fine,” we’re told. "Place your wine in your hand, not under the seat. Once you put your blindfold on, I promise you won't be able to find it."

Right then. Blindfold on. It’s time for the first play.

Oh god, this is going to smudge my eyeliner, isn’t it? I try to put in on carefully, but it’s no good. I might have well sat myself down in the splash zone at Titus Andronicus for the mess it's going to make.

Well, there's nothing for it. I say goodbye to my wings and put on the blindfold.

Things go a bit scifi in the first play, In the Shadow. A bit Black Mirror. A soul is trapped in the dark. And we're trapped with it. I imagine the benches as shelves in a lab. And all the blindfolded audience members as brains in jars, lined up and watching as our fellow consciousness struggles with his new reality.

As the play ends, loud clapping bring us back into the theatre.

Are we allowed to take our blindfolds off? I pull mine up tentatively. Others are doing to same. We blink into the light.

I wipe under my eyes, but there's no time to get out a mirror. The next play is being introduced: Two to the Chest.

I pull the blindfold back down and surrender to the darkness, but it's no good. I keep on getting pulled back. Someone is rustling a plastic bag behind me and I can't concentrate. The words seem to float around without meaning. I can't follow what's happening. Something about wrestling? I have no idea.

Voices move around the space. Coming close to me and then move away. I shrink back into the seat, suddenly very aware that the actors can see us, but we can't see them. The power balance feels all wrong. Distorted. As if we're in a dock, being judged, and unable to face our accusers.

The back of the bench is hard against my spine. I can't move. Every time I shift my weight it sounds like a symphony of creaking wood.

I try to concentrate on the play, but it's impossible. I can't focus.

When the applause breaks through, I don't hesitate to push my blindfold up onto my forehead. I crave the light. To know what is happening around me.

There's a few people in the audience who don't bother. The sit stoic, their black masks undisturbed.

Last play. The Monkey’s Paw. A story I despise. I have no patience for repetitive storylines. Three wishes from the genie's lamp. Three ghosts of Christmas past. Three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. Three big yawns from ya gal, Maxine.

It's a radio play, with some very dodgy sounding advertisers.

There's some proper foley action going on. I itch to take off my blindfold, but not because it's uncomfortable, but because I'm desperate to see what is going on. Bollocks to the theatre magic. For the first time, I get the sense that something is happening beyond the words. That the blindfold is actually preventing me from witnessing something interesting. The loss of a sense is a proper loss.

I sit on my hands, veering between delight and desperation as the play crackles on. This is it. This is the stuff. Here's were the writing (Jack Williams and Sara Butler) and direction (Matthew Jameson) have run with the idea of the lack of sight and made it into something beyond the mere absence of visuals.

"You can now take the blindfolds off," says our host.

The actors line up for their applause and we get to see them for the first time. Who was who? I can't tell. I check the freesheet. "The Monkey's Paw. Performed by Sophie Kisilevsky & Liam Harkins." Only two actors? I was convinced it was three. Blimey.

I reach into my bag and grab my compact. I'm a mess, with lines all over my face. I've aged forty years in forty minutes.

"Would you like me to take that back for you?" asks my neighbour, indicating the discarded blindfold sitting on the bench next to me.

Clearly she senses my pilfering fingers. I do love to steal an audience prop given half the chance.

I let her take it away.

Feeling woozy, I stumble back down the stairs to the pub. I'm not sure what to do with myself. Everything is too bright, but at the same time, not bright enough. My eyes dart around, unable to latch onto anything, until...

I don't mean to alarm anyone, but there's a dog on the sofa.

A massive dog.

A frickin' adorable dog.

He's asleep. No doubt exhausted from a hard day of pub theatre management.

I bite the inside of my mouth, trying very hard not to squee. Important dogs don't like being squeed at. Especially when they're sleeping.

I really want to pet him.

I back away slowly.

Back up the stairs and I notice something. There's a door set high into the wall. And it's open. Cool night air pours in.

Outside I catch a glimpse of a terrace.

Not letting myself think too hard about whether I was allowed out there, I climbed through.

There's not much of a view, but it's glorious all the same. I hadn't realised how stuffy it was inside until that moment.

I walk around a little, letting my limbs click back into place and my senses realign. This is just what I needed.

I'm ready to go back in.

"Here you go. Earplugs," says the woman on the door to the theatre handing me a small packet.

I really hope that they don't want us to give these back.

Our host reappears and we're given a short lesson on how to use them. Squish them down and stick 'em in, basically. Then wait for them to expand.

I don't know whether you've ever worn earplugs before, but let me tell you, they are next to useless. They're little better than sticking a finger over your ear when you're trying to have an important phone call in the office. They take off the edge, but in no way do they cut out sound.

Our host speaks to us through the medium of cue cards. A game of charades. People call out their guesses. We can hear the guesses. And yet, we all pretend that we're deaf to the world around is. That's the real charade.

The plays without sound start. First off, A Silent Farce. Set in a world where no one speaks. Actors hold phones to their ears and yet never say a word.

We don't hear anything, not because of the earplugs, but because there is nothing to hear.

The same in the next play, Tick-Tock. No one speaks. Communication is via touch and significant glances.

I'm beginning to wonder what the brief was for these plays. Did the writers know how the audience would be watching their work?

The host reappears in between each play, with his cards. Except this time he's brought the wrong ones. "say it's carol singers," the first one reads. We're being Love Actuallied.

Eventually, the mistake is realised, and the cards swapped out with the tech desk, for one with the name of the next play: Quest Invisible.

Reece Connolly comes out. He sticks a sign to his chest. "Stork," it says.

He pulls a rolled up blanket from a basket and sticks a sign onto that to. "Baby."

Something tells me things are going to get weird.

Five minutes later I find myself being handed a piece of paper with a large sperm drawn onto it. Connolly mimes that we should crumple up the paper and lob it at an egg he's placed onto a chair.

This we do. Wadded up paper balls fly across the stage, landing everywhere but on the chair. Connolly sighs. We failed to fertilise the egg.

Another sign is brought out. A gold one this time. "Super Sperm."

An audience member is dragged onto the stage. He's ordered to kneel down while the golden sign is folded into a paper aeroplane. He can get up now. To throw the dart. It misses. It wasn't a very good dart. So much for super sperm.

Jessica Wren, our mother-to-be, rushes back and forth across the stage, carrying fruit to indicate how big her baby is now.

A silent game of heads or tails is played with another audience member, to decide the personality of the baby, like we're building a new character in the Sims. Heads for yes. Tails for no. Sporty? Heads. Kind? Heads. Intelligent? Tails.

When the laughter gets too much, Connelly presses his fingers to his lips. Shh. We'll wake the baby! he mimes. It's so hard though! Rebekah King's didn't just create a world without sound, she made one where sound exists, but we're not allowed to use it.

As if to prove my point, Connelly goes up to his chosen one, the Super Sperm, after the curtain call. "Sorry," he apologies. "But it had to be you."

He can talk after all. When the baby's not around.

Read More