Yes, we know, theatre has responded to the pandemic by innovating, by moving online, into your eardrums, into your bath, into the ephemeral steam of that mug of tea you forgot to finish drinking three hours ago. But there’s a distinct and precious set of rituals that come with going to an actual theatre – and not just the traditionally pleasant ones like laughing together, or digging into an interval ice cream, or hearing an actor say the name of the show with delicious emphasis. In a concept rudely stolen from Time Out, here are the things Exeunt’s writers never thought they’d miss about going to the theatre.
The smell of programmes
If someone chemically created a perfume that had the scent of a theatre programme, I would buy it by the bottle-full. I’m not talking about the smell of those cheap, plasticky, laminate programmes. They suck. They don’t smell of anything. I’m talking about premium programmes: those textured, earthy, high-gsm babies you get at the NT, and the Almeida, and various other places, that have thoughtful programme essays by Dan Rebellato in, and feel like the tree they are made from was mindfully chopped down yesterday by a bearded Norwegian lumberjack. Man, I wouldn’t even read programmes like that. I would just stuff my nose in them and breathe in so deeply. How to describe that smell? It smells organic. It smells authentic. It smells like a combination of coffee and grain and heather and wool. It’s the olfactory equivalent of reading some esoteric long-read, or watching an indie documentary on MUBI. It smells – and I’ve thought hard about this – of Culture with a capital C. And I miss it a lot. (Fergus Morgan)
The pre-show apology
I’m 6’5. On a good non covid day, I’m 18 and a half stone. I have size 15 feet. I sometimes have an afro. I have been to the theatre enough to know that I am the absolute worse person to sit behind. Or next to. Or in front of.
For some people, the pre-show ritual is simple: order interval drinks, buy a program (one of the good-smelling ones) and gaze in wonder at the upcoming shows. My ritual is slightly different. I turn up with the apologetic countenance of a dog caught on the sofa with muddy paws and leave it as late as possible to take my seat. This is done to minimise everyone’s least favourite dance, the apology shuffle. Once I’ve taken a seat, I try to make an apology whilst making a joke in the classic style of Hugh Grant. And then I concentrate on the show, uncomfortably aware that for at least four people, their experience has been irrevocably changed by my presence. I used to worry about it. Now I think the other patrons wouldn’t find it so bad. (Angelo Irving)
Theatre bar wine
I don’t mind admitting that wine has played a large part in my lockdown – when you’re regularly watching old episodes of the X-files at 3am, you have to give shape to your day somehow, right? – but nothing has quite come close to replicating the tepid, sticky thrill of a glass of theatre wine. This wine falls into different categories, obviously. There’s the legitimately decent stuff served at a tiny handful of venues – they have actual carafes at the Bridge – but more often than not we’re talking mediocre-to-borderline-undrinkable stuff sold at astronomically inflated prices, given you could buy something more palatable for £4 from Lidl. Aggressively acidic white wine that has never seen the inside of a fridge. Red wine that would make Keith Floyd weep (and then probably drink it anyway). As much as I semi-resented this at the time, I miss it now. I miss the find-my-wine ritual of the interval as you scan the little shelf for the tumbler with your name on it, then do the weird aisle-waltz you do as you try not to spill it on your companion’s shoes. But I miss the after-show wines most of all. I miss snagging the last table at the Understudy in order to energetically dissect Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play. Or perching on a bench with one of those reusable cups at the Vaults that make everything taste like grape-flavoured squash. Or having very intense merlot-fuelled conversations at BAC before pretending to hesitate over whether or not I am going to have a second glass, because of course I am, because why would I want this to stop? I miss theatre wine, I miss the astringent, overpriced needlessness of it, but far more than that I miss having people to share it with. (Natasha Tripney)
Needing, but not wanting, a pee
I miss being so immersed in a live experience that I am willing to cross my legs in knots, curl into a ball and bite on my hand. All of this is done in the often futile hope that I can prevent my surrender to the call of my frustratingly small bladder. I miss how the desperation to not pee intensifies, particularly as the climax of the third act approaches. I miss being in a space where pissing myself feels, for a fleeting moment, to be a preferable outcome to missing the action onstage. I miss experiences you can’t pause. I miss when drinking too much tea had serious consequences. (Andrew Edwards)
Sitting on steps
I miss sitting on steps, or kerbs, or benches – or even leaning against wet brick walls – because I’ve arrived fifteen minutes early and I feel weird about taking up a table in the bar without buying anything. The ur-steps, in my mind, are the ones at the entrance to the Royal Court. They’re a nice smooth cream stone, and if you’re in luck you can get your back to the wall and hook your knees up in front of you like a kid in assembly, and the only price for a front-row view of Sloane Square is occasionally having to lend someone a lighter, which anyway is also something I deeply miss doing. I miss the picnic benches under the canopy outside The Yard, with their own freezing-cold microclimate. I miss the sleek dark grey blocks that line the neat grassy square in Regent’s Place in front of the New Diorama, as much as I know they’re a corporate land developer’s sop to the idea of public space. I miss standing outside CPT, staring sadly into Sainsbury’s. It’s only drizzling a bit, I’ll go in when they ring the bell. (Lily Levinson)
An unwelcome digital beep
Amazing to think that one tiny peep from the mobile phone you thought was turned off used to be enough to transform a confident theatregoer into a tiny, humiliated maggot, writhing in shame on the floor of the auditorium, but it really was. Imagine feeling that heady mix of shame and fear and fury right now. Weirdly delicious, isn’t it? (Alice Saville)
The post-show hunt for a drink
I miss a very particular type of after-show drink. Not the networking drinks of Summerhall or the air kisses of the Almeida’s cold, ice-white ££££ bar (one time I was standing next to Andrew Scott there and, when I came to order, accidentally said ‘Moriarty’ instead of Malbec). I miss the ones where the show was either so life changingly-transformative, or so hilariously shit that you simply must talk about it RIGHT NOW. But it’s a Friday or Saturday night and it’s past 10pm. You have a short window to find somewhere to drink before the last tube (London) or that Merseyrail over the water (Liverpool) or that late midnight secret Fringe stand-up gig (Edinburgh), and it needs to be somewhere where you can hear each other speak. The theatre bar is either too busy or full of folk who you don’t want to overhear your musings. So begins the post-theatre bar crawl. Hasn’t Dave still got a Phoenix bar card? Perhaps if we sit outside the Understudy we’ll be fine? Is there a single pub in this city that doesn’t have improv on in it and where we might feasibly get a seat?? These drinks are bought hurriedly, and terrible decisions made (do you know what, a Tia Maria and coke sounds great actually) in order that discussions might be had as soon as possible before we ‘simply must go home’.
Fuck the ‘synching up of heartbeats’, this is the shared experience that I miss. On our first date, my now husband and I went to see a terrible play and then drank two bottles of wine in the road outside Wilton’s Music Hall. He swears we bought them at the bar, but I swear he had at least one already from the Co-Op secreted in his coat. There’s a 50% chance you will have just the one, an intense chat and peel off into the night, buzzing off the love you feel for your clever friends, so wise and astute their opinions, feeling like you should all definitely get your own Front Row type radio 4 show. And then the other 50%, you miss the bus. You walk home in the rain and pretend you are in a music video, or that you’re Eponine in Les Mis, and the pavements are shining all around you. (Francesca Peschier)
Into each critic’s life comes a time when they must walk a lonely road, by which I mean, sometimes you can’t have a +1. As nothing I think or feel is real until I’ve expressed it, this has forced me, in the past, to frantically WhatsApp my nearest and dearest on the Tube – picking up WiFi between stations – when I’ve particularly liked or loathed a production. It used to feel quite abject. There I was, a bucket slopping emotion all over the Bank interchange, firing unwanted feuilletons of theatrical insight to friends who were just trying to wash up after dinner. But invariably, these texts would help me focus what I was going to write in my review. I miss the sense that, through conversation and fumbling, I was jerryrigging a considered response; I miss the sense that there is anything to respond to with varied and engaged emotion, rather than numb horror; I miss the thrill of connecting to WiFi Extra to spot the response to a 5,000 character message: “Sounds cool! :)” (Ka Bradley)
The cornershop samosa
I spent most of my 20s grey-faced from the various mild nutritional deficiencies that come with a vegan diet that’s rich in wine-and-crisps-for-dinner and low in lovingly-simmered pulses. Even if I managed to make a packed lunch for work, packing a dinner as well felt like a bridge too far. So the 99p cornershop veggie samosa was my knight-in-shining-pastry, bought hungrily on my dash between office to theatre, and eaten with ungainly haste, scattering the odd errant pea as the lights went down. I used to beat myself up for not eating home-stewed vegetables from neat tupperware containers – but now that the business of cooking stretches out, like a boorish theatregoer’s legs, to fill most of my days, I realise that ‘homecooked meals’ and ‘striving towards a creative career in a big city’ were never compatible goals. Come back, brave little samosa! You were mighty yet humble, always knowing that you’d play second fiddle to the night’s real event: theatre! (Alice Saville)
Being based in Oxford means leaving two hours to get to the theatre in London (or one and a half hours if you’re playing the regionally-based theatre reviewer’s equivalent of Chicken). Some, like the National Theatre, are easily commutable (hello Bakerloo line). Others require ingenuity and several changes: the Yard (the overground!); Theatre 503 (train-tube-bus). I find being at the mercy of the vagaries of train delays adds an extra sense of jeopardy. There’s is such a thrill in getting to the theatre just in time and taking your seat just as the lights go down, heart hammering. Then there’s the journey home. Sometimes, the stars and the running time of the play align and I snag a seat on the fast train that does not stop at Didcot Parkway. Other times, I emerge from the escalator to find the train has just left and I have to wait on a cold platform for an hour. But then I treat myself to a thriller and Tangfastics from WH Smith and start to write my review on my phone. (Hannah Greenstreet)
Nothing beats the particular kind of interval small talk you get with strangers at the theatre, from the man who stormed out of the RSC’s Henry IV after turning to me to say, “Well! They’re not Olivier, are they!” to the woman I spent the whole interval chatting with before she mentioned her name was Sharon Gless and she was attending with her friend, Tyne Daly (aka Cagney & Lacey). People in England who are willing to chat with a stranger for even 15 minutes are obviously extremely weird (myself included) so it’s pretty much always a surreal experience, made even better by the fact that after 15 minutes, they can’t talk to you anymore. (Hailey Bachrach)
Wine gums are… bad? I don’t think I like them. I would never, ever buy them–except when they’re marked up 15x and for sale in a theatre lobby. For some reason I often would get them at the Globe, I think because the physical exertion of chewing them and the faintly disgusting flavour distracted me from the pain of hour two of standing on concrete. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I really miss being a groundling, too… (Hailey Bachrach)
Five olives and a slice of parmesan in a small melamine bowl
When do the rest of you eat dinner? My body’s optimal feeding hour is about 8pm, which is also when I’d be approximately half an hour into a two-hour production. About 30% of the time, I’d remember to bring a packed lunch and dinner into the office, and eat at my desk at 6pm. The other 70% of the time, though, I ate a packet of crisps in an interval, commuted home to Zone 3, and got in at about 10pm with a review to file. I didn’t have the time or inclination to make dinner. I rarely had the forethought to batch cook. But I could always rely on there being parmesan and olives in the fridge. Sometimes, on good days, I might even have bought a net bag of tangerines. Post-show dinner of champions. (Ka Bradley)
Getting really, really angry about the positive critical receptions of plays I didn’t personally like
I miss seeing BIG HIT plays starring BIG NAME actors from BIG NAME TV SHOWS and thinking, ‘Hmmm that was disappointingly average’, only to wake up the next morning to an avalanche of five-star reviews proclaiming BIG NAME TV ACTOR as the saviour of the theatrical form. I miss causing myself stomach pains by reading all the five-star reviews while angrily shovelling granola into my facehole while bent over my phone first thing in the morning. I miss, in short, behaving like the creation of substandard theatrical art is a personal – very personal – affront to me, Rosemary Ellen Cherry Waugh, the individual whose tastes everyone should take into account when making a piece of theatre. I miss – also – seeing feminist shows that don’t adhere to my particular vision of feminism and waking up at 3am to argue with me, myself and I about why this crap is not really feminist at all and is actually really quite dangerous and depressing and, worst of all, just really bad theatre. I miss constructing arguments about the theatrical artform which are basically just me, with a metal bucket upturned on my head repeatedly shouting FUUUUUCCCCKKK. I miss constructing even longer arguments about why the critical reception of substandard theatrical art genuinely matters because making art is the pinnacle of human achievement and if we accept and reward substandard versions then we might as well give up on being humans right now. I miss being angry and sad and obsessed and in love with theatre. And I can’t wait to be that terrible, terrible person again one day soon. (Rosemary Waugh)
Have you ever been kicked by a Doc Marten boot? That shit hurts, I tell you. Like, more than you can keep quiet about, even when you are sitting in the front row at a tiny theatre, the actors only inches away, and your hiss of shock and pain ricochets around the room like a bullet. The girl beside me squeals in horror, hastily moving the boot that just crashed into my kneecap as she tried, unwisely, to cross her legs in the confined space of our uncomfortable bench.
“Sorry!” she hisses, as we both try to pretend no one else has noticed. I nod, and we exchange those tight, awkward smiles that British people do, forced into this weird proximity. Periodically throughout the rest of the show she checks I am OK, that she has caused no permanent harm. That she does so by grabbing my fast-bruising knee and giving it a friendly shake is probably unwise, but it’s kindly meant. I miss you, girl in rainbow coloured Doc Martens.
I miss you, grumpy woman whose lap I nearly sat on as I tried to get to the seat in the middle of a row down a Victorian era aisle not meant to be negotiated with a size 16 arse and arms full of drinks and shopping bags.
I miss you, alarmed girl who closed her bag of peanuts because I told you I was allergic, and I’m sorry you spent the rest of the show checking I was alive.
Not sure I miss YOU, middle class man at the Donmar who sneered “ugh, diversity!” at the sight of different race actors playing siblings, but I sure miss the look on your face when I said, “well I think it’s GREAT” loudly enough to embarrass you into silence. (Don’t mess with Northerners: loudness and attention hold no fear for us.)
I miss people. I miss crowds. I just miss… audiences. Even the annoying or annoyed ones. I just want them back. (Tracey Sinclair)