I have started to augment my income as a columnist by working on the London stage in the evenings. It’s not solely about the money – I couldn’t be happier with what The Independent gives me and, in fact, when you take into account the quality of the columns, I think they’re incredibly generous. It’s just that I have an interest in the stage, and so I like to keep my hand in.
My current stage work takes place in the East of London and I’m contracted to do it more or less every night. The point is, it’s taking it out of me, and though I’ve fought hard to prevent it from happening, the additional workload is putting the squeeze on what I know is my bread and butter – the column. I’m not too proud to admit it: I am writing this at 1am on the night bus. I’ve got a bottle of Cobra in one hand, a fairly spicy KFC burger in the other, and with what’s left, I’m scrawling this into my notepad. It is barely legible and inevitably it is starting to get smeared in chicken and Indian drink.
I had wanted this column to be about how I prepare for my show. My technician said that it might be interesting to tell people how I gear up to the moment I waddle out into the lights and face down my audience. But increasingly I sense myself being dragged away from that theme. I think that inevitably this will end up being about night buses and the curious creatures you find upon them. The man across from me, for example, is bald and is eating a Jamaica Ginger Cake as if it were a banana. A young lady in front of him is carrying a goldfish bowl. She is pale and has, I assume, been given the bowl by the host of a house party, lest she become ill on her journey home. Some Spaniards are being quite rowdy to my rear.
My journey to the theatre is very different from this. My routine commences approximately an hour before I set off. I have a bath and forget about my cares (the column) and relax in my suds, before getting out and drying off on my pale green towel. Then I make some fish, usually a Tesco trout or some anchovies or bream, and have that with vegetables in front of Dragons’ Den. The whole thing is geared towards eradicating stress, readying myself emotionally to stand before people on raked seating. I’ll wash up, get dressed, jam some earphones in my lugholes and head to work. And that’s me, for an hour and half walking along a canal. And it feels great, to be honest. Serenity-wise, it’s a far cry from this.
The more I stare at what I have written, the less I feel I’m going to be able to type this up. More and more ketchup keeps dripping on it and I keep getting nudged by a 40-year-old drunkard to my right. He’s talking to himself and occasionally he prods my words and asks if it is about him. I tell him that it is not. To my left the bald nugget – using his heavy-handed system of peeling and munching – has seen off about two-thirds of his Jamaica Ginger Cake. The Spaniards are still a force. But it doesn’t matter, this is post-show.
Post-show, I can afford this. It’s OK for it to be chaotic. It’s before that I need the perfect conditions. Backstage I sit quietly, popping grapes and necking Evian until the appointed hour. Then I sling on my denim onesie, punch my dressing-room door as hard as I can, and am rolled in front of the lights. Pre-show is when everything has to be just so.
Now, my work is done (except for the column). I’m heading home. I’m counting my words now. Contractually I’ve done what I have to do, and typed up it will look like a normal column. I swig from my Cobra. I turn and start chanting with the Spaniards.
Tim Key’s show, ‘Single White Slut’, is at the Arcola Tent, London E8, to 29 March