For some inexplicable reason between masochism and a love of the absurd, I have signed up for another theatre outing. There was actually one in the middle I didn’t have the heart for that involved a 6th form trip to the Royal Court. Wisely they took the train. Except, if you can believe it, in front of that particular train somewhere between Crawley and East Croydon somebody chose to depart this mortal coil. Which led them grinding to a standstill for 2 hours before returning theatrically empty handed. Again. So this, I suppose, is third time lucky.
We do not make a promising start. The coach company ‘luxury tours’ has sent a bus for 79 when we ordered one for 81. The other coach, it seems, has engine troubles, and this is the best they could do. ‘Well you choose which kid should go home then’, says Judith, head of Drama. We survey the bubbling pockets of countryside kids and realise it would be a bit like drowning puppies, before they ever even left the farm. Which sometimes, I have to admit, is certainly rather appealing, especially when Sophie is involved. But Sophie is not here. Of course it’s down to a teacher to fall on their sword. An identical thought ripples through all 4 members of staff, but it seems somehow unchivalrous to check out so soon and so I keep quiet. Anne is beset by no such qualms and takes the hit. This leaves staff ratios below the legal limit but ‘bureaucracy be damned’ bellows Judith and we’re off, taking a tour on the wild side with 3 staff to 76 fourteen year olds.
An hour in and there is some commotion upstairs, which I am manning alone. There are sheets of rain on the motorway and some of it, it seems, is finding its way through the roof into seat 68. Amy is getting soaked. Amy is not one to complain; she only sits there meekly like an abused kitten, but this makes Rob all the more vociferous in her defence. Bless him, he’s got a bit of a crush. Not so much so that he is actually willing to trade seats with her though. The bus driver is aware of the problem: ‘I told you, the other bus is out of action’ he grumbles. Obviously. You will perhaps remember the last time I raised the grim health and safety spectre of 2 kids to a seat? So instead I make some chippy comment about the incongruity of writing ‘luxury’ down the side of this farting wheel-barrow and for the next 2 hours I perch perpendicular to a soggy seat base, only glad that my black cords will not show too much of a dodgy pee stain for the rest of the night.
The journey is interminable, but it is softened by the inventiveness of bored teenagers. The pair opposite have started snorting Tabasco. Yes snorting Tabasco.They are challenging each other to ever bigger lines and dribbling red snot down the chair arms. The pair behind are heatedly debating whether or not meow meow can kill you. They ask me. Stuck between the truth and a party political broadcast I always opt for the truth. Which is I have no fucking idea, but I imagine it would take some considerable effort to OD on plant fertiliser. ‘All things in moderation’ I say sagely, and then spend half an hour wondering if you can get fired for repeating an aphorism.
Later they take to snapping photos of sleeping staff, zooming up their nostrils, and posting it on Facebook. When Mr. Bream is roused from his slumber he loses his rag and demands that the whole bus pipe down or we’ll be going straight home. Which, of course, is one of those ridiculous things teachers say but can never follow through on (‘you’ll be on early morning military parade for a year boy!’ Actually that did happen but this is not Harrow, thankfully). So instead they start singing happy birthday, which is traditionally sanctioned noise pollution. Except they’ve sung it 5 times in a row now and it’s no one’s actual birthday.
Eventually we roll into London. ‘Look! Look! A homeless!’ screeches Aidan out the window, ‘I told you we’d see one!’
‘Aidan, you can’t say that, that’s prejudiced’, tuts Miss Farley.
‘For God’s sake have you never seen a homeless person before or something?’
‘Er no Miss’.
And you can see from the width of his eyes he isn’t lying. It’s then I realise it’s probably Sussex villages that were the most fitting inspiration for Hot Fuzz. In fact a number of these kids have never been to London before, which seems almost insane to me, but there it is. And many have never been to the theatre either. Like Meg who asks ‘is it true they do Pizza at half time?’ I tell her that of course they always bring round wooden palates of stone baked pizza for everyone, and then feel almost cruel when I see her begin to drool.
Amazingly we arrive an hour early and choose, somewhat I’ll-advisedly, to allow the kids to roam free in the confines of Covent Garden. We instruct them they cannot under any circumstances travel in groups of less than 3 or leave the confines of the plaza, and the beleaguered staff disappear off to have a slice of extravagantly priced Jamie Oliver pizza. Half an hour later and a bleary eyed, snotty nosed Rachel taps on the restaurant window behind table, with two blond boys beside her looking sheepish. I figure they must have stolen her pack lunch or something, but no:
‘We were just joking about and then I felt someone squeeze my bum and I thought it was Ed but they were both further behind and anyways they said it wasn’t them but then I saw a weird looking guy vanish into the crowd.’
Rachel is hysterical. You can tell it wasn’t the boys. They are almost as terrified.
‘Right ok. Do you know where the man is now?’ I ask.
‘No he’s gone. I just wanted to tell an adult so I could feel normal again.’
I feel like giving her a hug, but ironically it is because of people like this pervy stranger that I can’t. Instead I find myself wondering how many separate incident slips need to be filled in for this kind if experience. As long as you follow the flowchart protocol you’re protected from any comebacks. Which basically translates into writing everything down on a proforma and passing it up the chain, to someone else who will do the same thing, until it finally reaches the rammed inbox of someone who’s too busy or close to retirement to do anything about it anyway. And since incident slips became electronic I can’t even offer one to Rachel to blow her nose on. I don’t know what to say really. I ask if she feels okay to carry on, tell the boys to look after her and get them to join our table. The boys come up with a plan that she shall walk between them from now on. Two miniature golden knights, but I fear they’re woefully ill-equipped to deal with the orcs of London. Honestly, it’s enough to make you cry that there are country girls who go to the theatre for the first time and then there are phantom men who squeeze their arses before snaking off back into the urban swell. Unfortunately it seems Rachel has set off something of a pandemic. Hannah is now also in floods of tears. She went into a shop leaving her friend alone on the street, and is now convinced that her friend was lucky not to be sold into the sex trade and distraught that she would have had to live with the grief for the rest of her life. Statistical arguments offer scant comfort and finally all that’s left to do is usher the whole lot of them into the theatre early.
Except four of them are missing. Jesus fuck! It’s times like this I’m glad I’ve diligently followed a path of minimal career progression and responsibility. We flap and panic and make everyone form orderly lines and then count again and flap and panic, rinse and repeat. Someone is suggesting the police when a black cab pulls up and the four kids pop out grinning like Big Brother evictees. It turns that they had taken a double decker bus to Charing Cross and then got a cab straight back again because they’d never been in either. Such ingenuity! It’s hard not to admire the brass balls or seizing the chance to cross not 1 but 2 things off your bucket list in half an hour. I have to hide a fatherly swell of pride as Mr. Bream yaps at them.
Amazingly we are still early. Which was a mistake. I am set to patrol the upper circle and by the time the performance finally begins I have had to confiscate a large bag of skittles to stop kids taking pot shots at bald people below. You may assume I should control these pupils better, but I don’t actually know any of them and it’s more or less like telling off someone else’s kids in the park. To my inordinate relief the lights finally dim. An actor walks on and says nothing, staring upwards in an actorly manner for some 30 seconds.
‘Get on with it!’ bellows Meg to a ripple of tutting and whispers. For some reason I have assumed that the etiquette of a theatre is something you pick up on intuitively, like not eating cow dung or peeing in a graveyard, but I was obviously wrong, and now I can’t teach them otherwise. They whoop and cry and shriek at every twist and turn which, given we’re watching the Woman in Black, is fairly relentless. I swear if she comes into the audience there will be some kind of hysterical evacuation afoot. A rather officious theatre goer turns around several times, but the girls just ape him mercilessly, joyfully tutting each other for the rest of the half. It is Friday night and I am shattered so I decide the best option is to sleep through the whole thing and pretend they belong to someone else like some humiliated Labrador owner. This works surprisingly well until Aidan yells at me during the interval ‘did you shit yourself sir!? Did you?’ He’s clearly so excited I haven’t the heart to tell him off and just grin knowingly, whilst avoiding the roving eye of the disgruntled man in front. ‘I thought so,’ says Aidan, smugly satisfied that this is indeed THE scariest show in the world.
After the show there are 76 fully satisfied teens trying to scare the hell out of each other on the street outside the Stage door. They have enjoyed the show in a way that gives me a sense of nostalgia for the power of childhood stories. We are trying to usher them off to the bus, which brilliantly has parked over a mile away, but they steadfastly refuse to go till they have had the chance to congratulate the actors. The disgruntled man and his wife have to cross the street to avoid the pavement throng, but no one notices. After an age the door opens and the cast step into a cascade of bells and whistles to dwarf the X factor auditions. They smile sheepishly before beetling into the tube, satisfied stars for the night.
Later the bus has gone, and I am left waiting with Bryony for her mother to come since we’re both staying in London. She’s pretty late and it’s past midnight. Bryony and I get to talking. She’s mixed race from the Caribbean and Portugal, but spent most of her life growing up in Kingston on Thames, till her mother went abroad with work and she ended up in a boarding school in pastoral England. She is one of the only kids with a genuinely tough urban shell to her and I ask whether she misses the city buzz. ‘Not really,’ she says, ‘it was weird at first with everything smelling of cow shit and everyone calling you ‘dear’ in the shops. But do you know what? I think I like the countryside best.’