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Ding dong merrily on high, I do like a Christmas carol. The last two posts of the year will be devoted to singing, or more specifically carolling.

Let’s start with watching a performance at the Rose. The Rose theatre is a peculiar beastie indeed: in one sense it isn’t a theatre at all, and certainly it doesn’t look remotely like one. When I saw the Rose theatre in the thousand thing to do book, I was excited to see it, because it is the first and oldest theatre in Bankside, and as the website says, it is rich in history. This is where the Elizabethan plays would have been written and performed. Kit Marlowe and Shakespeare would have trod the boards, and the last speech Sir Laurence Olivier ever gave was in defence of the Rose. Fired up, I went to the website and realised that pretty much all the performances cost more than a tenner, save one, fair reader, save one. The Christmas concert performed by Octave is a fundraiser for the Rose itself, and in addition to the singing, mulled wine and mince pies were available, all for £6. Festive and a blooming bargain. I bought a ticket soon as look at you.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will not be particularly surprised that I was running a few minutes late for the performance. The Globe, you can’t fail to find, the Rose puts up more of a struggle. Honestly, if it weren’t for my iPhone, I’d still be trawling the mean streets of Borough now. It is some years since the cut throats, prostitutes and bear-baiters were cleared out of the area, but a lone woman in the rain at night holding a iPhone in a manner which shows clearly she has not a jot of an idea where she is going is an ill at ease woman indeed. Happily the app guided me in, and when I saw it, I realised at once that this was not at all the theatre I was expecting to see, as it is housed in a large, grey, indifferent structure, as different from its elizabethan counterpart as you can imagine. I pushed the door open, and was instantly hit by a wall of mulled wine spices. I gave my name and a nice young man behind the ticket office said “oh yes, I remember”, and I was shown a seat located helpfully close to the door.

I looked around in some bemusement. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a theatre. I was sitting on a large wooden platform with around 80 chairs on it, looking over a large black piece of grime and dark water with curious red lines etched into it, and hundreds of twinkling tea lights set in a catacomb arrangement around the edge. It was fairly nippy. At that moment a troupe marched onto the stage singing, and the performance began. I had sort of assumed given the location that I was going to be treated to a series of Elizabethan festive madrigals or some such. Not so, all the classic carols were there, and we were strongly encouraged to join in. But there were other festive classics too, everything from vegan Benjamin Zephraniah ‘everyone should be nice to turkeys’, to ‘White Christmas’, with a wee bit of Kirsty McColl and the Pogues thrown in for good measure. Each piece was introduced with a little bit of trivia. Jingle bells is apparently riven with innuendo, and the catholic church gave up on one carol when they realised it was written by a member of the church of england and arranged by a Jew. All was terribly festive and right with the world, and even I, bad tempered old bat that I am, was beginning to get a wee bit more festive.

As the singers broke for the intermission, we were charged with getting our mincepies and mulled. Like an architecture seeking missile, I went to the edge of the stage, and started trying to work out what peculiar place I was in. I got chatting with a curly haired gentleman who managed the theatre, and he explained everything. The Rose had closed in the early 1600s, and its foundations had been discovered when they had been building the indifferent grey building, at which point, the builders had to go to colossal effort to preserve the remains of the theatre. They built massive metal supports which bore the weight of the building above: in 1989 they cost £10m. In modern money, that’s broadly equivalent to £250m. The red lines etched into the ground mark the outlines of the old theatre, and they chose red quite deliberately, as this was not only a theatre but (turn away now readers of a delicate disposition) a brothel, and the Bishop of Winchester got a cut of the takings. Even as a theatre it would have been jam-packed, most of the audience would have stood cheek by jowl in the auditorium, with expensive, if uncomfortable seating available for those who could afford it: with cushions available to hire too). In comparison the 80 plastic seats set up on the stage is the height of luxury.

As always, there is more to do. They are going to raise £4.5m next year so they can better preserve the foundations by putting a membrane over them, and complete the remaining excavations (only 2/3s of the foundations have been excavated to date). They want to expand the educational resources they offer, and play an active part in the 2012 cultural Olympiad. The theatre manager spoke with such enthusiasm about the project, the plays he wanted performed there, and how to increase the learning opportunities for learning. I realised at once that I was wrong about this place not being a theatre. It isn’t just a theatre because plays are performed here: it’s a theatre because both the staff, volunteers and audiences really love the place and are so keen to ensure that stories continue to be told here. If you can’t run to a play here, tour the premises on a Saturday which is free (although donations are very gratefully received).

Tomorrow, you will see me, spouse and Zim carolling for cash (for charity). Curiously, we did this on my festive birthday, and it was truly fabulous.

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