Off Piste: The queue's the thing

National Theatre-going regular Rivka Isaacson finds compelling drama in the early morning cast of characters waiting to buy day tickets

January 15, 2009

If you think it is just the English who like to queue, try standing in line for day tickets at the National Theatre. If, one morning, you are willing to rise with the lark, you can occupy superb seats in the Olivier, Lyttelton or Cottesloe theatres that evening for a mere tenner. Often you'll get to sit in the front row, affording you close-range views of the actors' facial expressions and the honour of being spat upon by the likes of Simon Russell Beale.

Even more enticing to me, though, is the colourful cast of characters one meets in the line, often as stimulating as the plays themselves. What this erudite posse lacks in class diversity is counterbalanced by age range and international origins. United in the unfortunate combination of a strained purse and a love of theatre, the queue comprises retirees, academics, out-of-work thespians and all manner of people who can get away with turning up a bit late for work.

In one of my favourite novels, A Town like Alice, the narrator Noel Strachan has a convenient word with a man in his club about the procedure for formally establishing the death of a prisoner of war. I see the queue as my "club", only cheaper and less exclusive - one can tap into such broad expertise. Recommendations for plays, books, restaurants, recipes and talks, not to mention free advice on life, love and careers, abound in the queue. Why pay for therapy?

In a complete failure to heed the warnings of my childhood, one of my favourite activities is talking to strangers - and sometimes I even accept their sweets. One of my most successful new year's resolutions was to befriend people of all generations. The queue offers ample opportunity to combine these activities.

The eminent psychologist Richard Wiseman suggests that chance encounters increase your luck, and my experience of the National Theatre queue is living proof of this. The director of a new musical gave me free tickets to his press night; I was commissioned to write a science column for a new magazine; and I recruited some delegates to a virtual-worlds event hosted by my erstwhile flatmate.

While queuing for The Life of Galileo, I met Jason, an American employed to design a new website for public engagement with science. As a fellow interdisciplinarian he invited me to participate in a focus group for which I was remunerated with a hundred pounds' worth of Amazon vouchers.

I appropriately used some of this to purchase Dame Gillian Beer's book Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Fiction. It had languished longest on my wish list despite, or perhaps because of, my offering eternal love to whomsoever bought it for me.

I only heard about War Horse, the least missable play currently running at the National, via the unanimous lauding of it in the queue, with everyone around me seeming to have seen it the first time around. It is sold out until the end of its run in March, but they save about 50 tickets to sell each day. So if you queue only once in your life, queue for War Horse. Get there early, because if you can sit in the front row the experience is awesome in the old and new senses of the word. My hope is still to meet someone who has worked on the technical side of the play, as I'm dying to know how many spare puppets they have in case of damage - they go through so much in a performance - and how they choreographed the ballet that is the three people who operate each one.

In line for Oedipus, I met an academic historian who invited me to dine at high table in her Oxford college when I was visiting the chemistry department to use a particularly strong magnet in my research. This dinner felt like an extension of the queuing experience, except with comfy seats, posher accents and more clearly defined areas of expertise. The alcohol component contributed much to the conversational flow and it occurred to me that a little hip flask in the queue might serve a dual purpose of warmth and social lubricant. Not that I endorse drinking before noon.

Once, arriving at 8.15am to take my place, I was surprised to see the queue snaking out perpendicular to the theatre's main entrance instead of its usual neat nestling in the recess to the right of the door. Was I witnessing an anarchist revolution or merely a group of novices unaware of the traditional format? In the words of a Donna the Buffalo song that will probably make it into my Desert Island Discs selection should I ever get sufficiently famous to be on the programme, "They say change comes and change i-i-is good ..."

I didn't want to be resistant to change. Inertia is responsible for many of the world's ills. Was the queue worse off in its new position? After some deliberation I realised that even if I co-operatively joined the misplaced queue, a stalwart was bound to turn up and make a fuss so I politely explained the situation to the six-membered conga line, which, in a flurry of gratitude and apology, took its rightful position in the grey bay. Phew.

Something I heard from a later-arriving fellow queuer validated my decision to intervene in that case. She had come to queue for something very popular and the line was bustling, but a self-appointed mediator handed everyone a number as they arrived and checked it every time they returned from getting a chair or a cup of tea so that nobody could push in. Apparently this woman did not even purchase any theatre tickets, but had set up her system purely as a public service/power-trip/manifestation of dementia. However one chooses to interpret it, there are worse ways to harness the Linda Snells of this world.

You find you have strange things in common with people. Take Rohini, the woman I met who teaches English at City University of New York and stops off in London to drink her case of culture whenever she flies between India and the US. Rohini was there to see The Year of Magical Thinking; I was going for Major Barbara.

The chat inevitably turned to theatre. She had just seen a play at the Pushkin Institute on the life of Marina Tzvetaeva, the turbulent White Russian poet, on whom I was well informed, my curiosity having been piqued several years before by a poem written in tribute to her by Wendy Cope.

The poem ends with the ambiguous line, "Hope is a long leash drawn in slowly". Does it mean that we start off full of opportunity and a free rein but that the world slowly closes in on us, limiting our horizons until we must give up hope? Or is it more like fishing? You reel in the line slowly and then there is disappointingly nothing at the end. I got to speculate over this yet again with Rohini.

It's a comforting debate, like rereading a novel for the 50th time or pulling up a chair in a familiar cafe. And however rubbish your life seems, it can't be worse than Tzvetaeva's - husband shot, abandoned by lovers, poverty, two kids dead before her, exile and suicide, to name but a few catastrophes. I'm not talking Schadenfreude; more "count your blessings" - you could be alone in Yelabuga, which turns out not to be the party capital of the Black Sea, sis.

Peter Ebsworth, the editor of Southbank Poetry, a triennial London-themed anthology, is a fixture on matinee days, peddling his magazines to the queue in the hope that an interest in theatre extrapolates to an open-mindedness towards poetry. I bought an issue and after reading and enjoying it, I contacted Peter to ask whether I could "pimp his pamphlet" one morning.

I'm always curious to test my powers of persuasion and I was keen to view the wait from another angle. We split the queue and took half each. I managed to sell three in contrast to Peter's paltry two, but more importantly I was regaled with anecdotes from people whose lives have been enhanced by the queue. One 60-year-old widow met her current partner, her junior by ten years, when they were queuing for The History Boys - yet another case of Alan Bennett warming the cockles. Someone else told me she is going to New Zealand for three months and will be subletting her flat to somebody she met in the queue.

My own performance poetry career was recently kick-started by drunken friends who persuaded me to recite limericks in Limerick at an open-mic pub night. So topical an opportunity rarely occurs, although the generous-hearted population of Limerick must be sick of it by now. Practising on selected members of the queue has increased my confidence to perform to a wider audience and I "slammed" for the first time recently.

The transient interactions formed in the queue are an opportunity to reinvent yourself or adopt an entirely false persona. That I have sometimes been duped, or at least subjected to embroidery, occurred to me when, in efforts to flesh out some of the legends I have heard, I began googling a selection of my protagonists, only to find no trace of them and their stories. Rohini, for example, was nowhere to be found on the staff of CUNY Hunter, past or present. I suspect some names have been changed to protect the identities of their owners and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

I'll admit I have a history of such behaviour myself, although the queue seems a dangerous place for identity fraud as, being a regular, I may see the same people again. Tangled webs aren't always worth weaving, especially if you intend to take advantage of opportunities forged in the queue. People often ask me if I'm Icelandic. This is because of my name and alleged passing resemblance to Bjork. Sometimes I say yes. Until the recent financial crisis, nobody knew much about Iceland.

I have had a lot of fun telling tales of my light-deprived childhood (only a white lie since I'm really from Manchester) in a village 100 miles from Keflavik, usefully invoking an Icelandic phrase that means "May I kill puffins?" learned from a half-Pakistani-half-Icelandic work colleague. This subterfuge backfired on me at a comedy night recently when I claimed Icelandicness to a genuinely Icelandic compere who was unnecessarily nice about it when he could have used it as a crutch to win back his sagging audience.

An added bonus of meeting people in the morning is that you see some of them again at the evening's performance; often you end up sitting next to them. Not only does this make you look popular with whoever you've come with but it adds further evidence to any nosy speculating you've been doing about their lives - have they changed their clothes? Are they holding hands with anyone, male or female?

It's also a second chance to be courageous and ask for someone's number, obviating the need to place one of those dodgy ads that reads: "My Jubilee Line train ran parallel with your Metropolitan Line train for 17 seconds between Finchley Road and West Hampstead - we caught each other's eye - drink?" I'm glad our History Boys romance did not have to resort to such measures.

They say that alcove on the windswept South Bank is the coldest spot on Earth, but it is also the warmest as you are guaranteed a wealth of conversation while the bones inside your bottom meld to the chilled concrete and you cuddle a cardboard cup of tea. Bring hat, scarf, gloves and your thermal undies, some sweets to share, a book just in case and a conversation starter; it might not just be the National Theatre's doors that open at 9.30am.

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