LONDON TRAVELOGUE - Charing Cross Road
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Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road. We wandered up and down this road for a long time. There were plenty of bookstores to explore, ranging from large retail chains to narrow tight mazes of shops with bookshelves crowded in anywhere there was room for them. Many had narrow staircases which led to even more books, if you could manage to find the staircases as well as navigate your way to them and down them.

The Aptly-Named Mousetrap

Quite by accident in our Charing Cross wandering we came upon The Mousetrap, which we both remembered as being the longest-running live performance in London's history.  Or was it the world?   Maybe the world.  Hold on, I'll check.  Okay the world.  The Mousetrap is a murder mystery by Agatha Christie, and you know how I feel about mysteries, or you should, and we figured that the longest-running play must be the longest-running for a reason, so we went inside to buy tickets. We very nearly changed our minds when we heard the prices...starting at £18 apiece? Who did they think they were, the Odeon? But we had no other plans, so we bought a pair of the lowest-priced seats in the balcony for later in the evening.

Terrfying Dizzying Height
When we came back for the show, we quickly decided that this might be a mistake. When we walked into the lobby to claim our seats, we were quickly shunted back out and into a side entrance. We walked up some stairs, which seemed unusually tall and narrow, although at the time this did not strike us as significant.

After we had conquered the stairway, we stopped for a moment to give our burning calves a rest, and to try to catch our breath, as the air at this height was noticeably thinner (we were now apparently now several miles above sea level). Looking around, we found ourselves in a narrow balcony in red velvet and dark wood. We looked down the stairs for our seats and became strangely dizzy as we did so, and grabbed the handrails for support. I say 'handrails', but 'poles' would be more accurate, and 'stairs' is a rather generous description as well...'rungs' is much more precise. Beyond the 'stairs', we could barely make out the end of the balcony and the huge but narrow red velvet curtain beyond it, and below it.

We climbed down a few 'steps' to find our seats. On the way I dislodged a program stuck in a cushion and sent it slowly fluttering below me until it was lost from sight to inky blackness. After ten minutes or so of descent, we could see more clearly over the balcony wall and saw that the curtain we had seen at the top of the 'steps' was suspended from the ceiling somewhere above us and dramatically angled down out of sight somewhere far below us. I estimated a mile of curtain before it was lost from my sight, and I had no guess as to how far it extended past my range of vision.  I looked up at the top of the curtain curiously, trying to see what sort of titanium brace had been devised to support the weight of the countless yards of curtain.

From the outside, the building had looked tall and narrow, and not more than five stories high.  But considering all the climbing we had done to gain the balcony, and looking over the balcony rail down into infinity, it seemed to us that some very basic and important laws of physics and perspective were being completely overlooked here. But then we suddenly realized that it wasn't that the building itself wasn't deceptively short (well, maybe it was, a little), but that the building must have simply been built over the site of a naturally-occuring yawning chasm of staggering depth, obviously for the purpose of squeezing in hundreds or thousands of rows of seats for maximum profit.

After several hours' descent, we reached the level of our seats. The chairs were upholstered in soft velvet and had very high wooden backs, and seemed appropriately soft and plush, but as we worked out our plan of attack to get from the pole-rail in the aisle to our seats without falling to our deaths, we noticed that the armrests of the chairs were around four inches in length. "Strange," we thought, ducking to avoid some falling children, but our puzzlement was forgotten when we noticed that the clearance between each chair and the chair-back of the next row forward was around two-and-a-half inches. If this seating design is any indication, British people have very differently-proportioned legs than Americans do, with their thighs about one-third the length of their unusually flat and narrow shins.

Well, we'd solve the problem of sitting when and if we got to it; first we had to get to the seats from the pole-rails without plummeting. We finally realized that once we made the initial horrifying leap from the pole-rails in the aisle to the first seat in the row, it wasn't a terribly difficult maneuver to navigate to our seats by grasping the seat-backs with both hands and using the short wooden armrests as footholds. Turning around to face the curtain once we got to our seats was tricky, as was actually determining which seats were ours, but by taking time to rest and mentally prepare, we managed it.

The next challenge we faced was trying to figure out what to do with our knees. I think we could have sat quite comfortably if not for them, but as we both had knees (at the ends of American thighs, too; well past the two-and-a-half inch allowance), we were going to have to find a solution. We tried simply wedging our knees between the edge of our seats and the seat-backs in front of us, but within seconds we had lost any sort of sensation beyond the thigh. When I saw my girlfriend's legs beginning to change color, rapidly, I knew we had to come up with a better solution.

Torture Devices --er, seats

Soon we hit on it. We noticed that each seatback in front of us was curved slightly, which meant that toward the right or left edge of each seat there was a bit more clearance than in the middle--perhaps another inch. We discovered that if we kept our knees clamped together, and angled them toward one or the other of these areas of greater clearance, then the pain was only excruciating. This required some synchronization among us and everyone else seated in our row, as all our knees had to be angled in the same direction for this method to work--and once you had chosen a direction you were committed, because everyone subsequently slid in place tightly beside you , like slats in an awning.  So this meant that our legs were perpetually in a postion at a 17° angle from our hip. 

By the way, you could not pretentiously and selfishly ignore your fellow audience-members and claim both of the wide spots to the right and the left, one for each knee.  I know you could not, because I saw a very self-important man try this, pretending not to notice the people arriving on either side of him.  But his smugness did not last long, because if you think it out, as I did, and as he didn't, you'll realize that this position results in the equivalent of doing a very deep, long split, which would be horribly painful for a woman, but for a man...  He was lifted out screaming through some sort of complex pulley system through the ceiling shortly afterwards.

Luckily we had arrived early and had plenty of time to decide which was our weak knee and which was our strong knee. As we waited for showtime, we took the time to observe other audience members arriving, and we examined and critiqued their various methods of seat navigation and arrangement of their various appendages. More than once we watched, helpless, as unlucky and not very surefooted patrons lost their grip and fell, no doubt to their deaths. The overweight people seemed to have the most trouble.  One very elderly woman lost her footing but was caught just before she went over the balcony wall by an alert couple in the front row, and everyone in our row applauded loudly, though the woman was also removed through the ceiling so that her broken hip could be attended to.

We waited, in the excruciating pain I mentioned before, for the play to start, our joints screaming in protest at both the fact that they had to be absolutely stationary for the next two hours because there was nowhere for them to go, and the fact that they were being compressed to 25% of their normal size.  Then I heard a weak voice from somewhere far below, which had probably been a quite loud, strong, booming voice when it started its journey upwards.  I looked down and saw a person who at first glance I thought was Senator Palpatine beginning an address to the Trade Federation, but who turned out to be just an employee announcing that one of the regular actresses would not perform that evening and would be replaced by another, much less talented actress. 

My legs were already completely asleep, or possibly necrotic, when the curtain began to rise. We leaned down to look toward the bottom of the curtain, which we presumed was the direction of the theoretical stage, but our view was obstructed greatly by all the heat and flames from the nearby bowels of hell. After a few moments, our eyes, seared by the bright flames and burned by all the sulfurous smoke billowing out of hell, became damaged to the point where we could no longer ever blink again; however, the permanent dulling of the pain receptors in our eyes allowed us to make out some indistinct activity on a flat rectangular surface below on a level with all the hissing magma, and we finally realized that the play had begun. All the actors looked like tiny insects, shimmering and mirage-like from the heat, scurrying back and forth over what I assume was a cleverly-built set. 

It took some adjustment to realize that, due to the distance, there was a delay of some minutes before the words from the actors' mouths reached our ears. This often caused the dialogue that we were hearing to seem to be spoken by the wrong actor; often a man's voice would synchronize with the exaggerated gesturing of an actress with hilarious results. Everyone in our particular balcony howled at this, as did many of the people in seven or eight of the balconies below us. One audience member found the show so hilarious that it, literally, killed him...he laughed and chortled and choked, but as a result his concentration faltered just enough that he slipped off his narrow sliver of seat cushion and went plunging off the balcony (although he continued to laugh most of the way down, at least until I lost sight of him).

But just when the play was at its most dramatic point, Satan stood up and yelled out who the murderer was, prompting loud groans of disgust from the audience and the cast alike.  This was apparently something he did all the time, because though the audience was outraged and booed Satan mercilessly, the actors just smiled wryly and then lined up for their bows.

This did not bother us at all, because by this time we were beyond ready to go. So we immediately got up to leave. When I say 'got up', that was...that was really our actual point of fact what happened was, well, nothing. None of our legs responded at all, and we had to spend twenty minutes or so unfolding our compressed bodies like a couple of cheap unoiled card tables whilst simultaneously hanging from the pole-rail in the aisle. Some time after we were straightened, more or less, our hearts remembered once again that they had historically sent blood to almost every part of our bodies, not just the chest, arms, and head, and we began to feel the first hint of sensation below the waist.  Another thirty minutes to relearn how to use our legs and we regained the stairway down. 

So, in summary, a hilarious show, with lots of surprises--I can see why it's the longest-running play in the world. The guy with the bald spot was good, and the woman with the hat and the heavy thick shoulders was quite entertaining. I wasn't crazy about the mousy-haired woman, but she was more than made up for by the man with the slicked-back hair. For paralytics or people with no lower extremities I heartily recommend the play.

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