Our own Queen's Theatre are currently staging Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and soon they will be hosting Cinderella as the festive season gets under way. On Monday night we sandwiched Peoples' Question Time into their busy schedule.
It's a long way out to Hornchurch on the District Line - over 40 stops from Richmond and I pay tribute to West London colleagues like Tony Arbour who made the trek. However only 14 of the Members turned up which was a bit disappointing - on the bright side, it did allow me to call every one of them to speak, and some got two bites of the cherry. I chaired what proved to be a raucous event.
Boris opened the meeting with one of his traditional barn storming speeches. For once I didn't take in much of the content as I was due to call Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold next and she hadn't arrived. If she didn't get there, who would give the Assembly update? Deputy Chair Dee Doocey wasn't there either, nor was previous Chair Darren Johnson. In fact none of the Members present had chaired the Assembly! What to do? Boris drew to a close and sat down to much applause..... The Jennette arrived, delays on the District Line we were told. She went straight into her speech, providing a useful update on Assembly activities.
Jennette was not the last to arrive - John Biggs slipped in, stage left, some time later. The DLR was playing up too...
We have a well rehearsed format for these occasions by now. The first item to be discussed was policing and crime.
A young man got to his feet to tell us that he had been attacked and knifed. His attacker was caught but got only two years inside, and he didn't feel this was long enough. Neither did the audience, judging by their reaction. Neither did Boris.
Someone asked what we were doing to tackle gangs and knife crime amongst young people. With Kit Malthouse away on paternity leave in Canada - he has had twins - I called James Cleverly to update the audience on the Time For Action strategy to beat youth crime.
A man from St Andrew's Church asked about metal thefts. This is a particularly topical question as thieves have been climbing onto the church roof to steal copper, with up to seven such incidents this year. The church - the Horned Church after which the town was named - is left with a leaking roof and volunteers sleeping inside, in an attempt to deter further thefts.
Aware of time constraints - always a challenge at PQT - I tried to call more questions but the guys at the front wanted their metal theft issue dealt with first. Boris chipped in on their behalf and I could see there was a danger - ever present - of him hijacking the chairing, so I let him carry on. He condemned the thieves who are targeting not only roofs but also BT cables, railway signals, war memorials and even drain covers, and he stated that these thefts should attract longer sentences. There should also be more controls over scrap metal dealers who accepted the stolen metal for cash in hand, no questions asked.
A woman from Haringey asked about crime in her area. I called Joanne McCartney who represents the borough, but Joanne had been equipped with statistics about crime in Havering by her diligent Labour researchers, so her response made us look like a hotbed of crime in comparison. I'd still prefer a night out in Hornchurch to a night out in Tottenham - and didn't we have to search the attendees for weapons when PQT went there a few years ago?
This session began with a question about ongoing closures of the District Line - a hot topic judging by the audience reaction, not to mention my own frustrations on far too many weekends. Boris replied that the weekend closures were not 'some random act of sadism' but were necessary to upgrade the line, and we would have longer and more frequent trains as a result. I hope things really do improve, and that there is an end to the disruptive closure programme.
A lady asked why there weren't more buses in her area. Boris asked his transport advisers to take a note and find out. He also told her that up to date information on bus times is now available by text, just a mobile phone click away.
A woman in a wheelchair asked why more disabled ramps on buses were not working. Boris reassured her that no bus is allowed to leave the depot without a working ramp. However my own postbag tells a different story and this is clearly becoming more of a problem - either the ramps aren't working or the drivers are avoiding using them.
A large man had a go about the Low Emission Zone, another hot topic in Hornchurch. Delaying the unpopular third phase two years ago was absolutely right, but introducing it a couple of months before the election may be a strategic political error. Boris stated that he had been prepared for this question - 'surely not!' I interjected, we weren't given notice of ANY of the questions - there was much hooting from the audience. Mike Tuffrey plugged his idea for a higher cost Central London zone, which looks attractive as it targets the problem and leaves Outer London alone.
An Asian man raised the question of access to Chadwell Heath Station where some very steep temporary steps are currently in place. Hopefully some proper ramps and lifts should be provided as part of the Crossrail upgrade in the next few years.
Another man asked for a progress upgrade on the cable car. Boris gave an enthusiastic response. John Biggs, in his seat by now, gave a more grumpy one and championed Ken Livingstone's support for the Thames Gateway Bridge. The bridge was cheered but Ken was booed.
As I opened this session a dozen young protesters stood up at the back and started chanting. They were out of synch with each other and several were Germans, so it was difficult to tell what they were saying, but I could tell the verse would take some time to complete. I asked them to stop and was ignored. Asked them to leave, ignored again. Asked security to clear the row, which they did, throwing around a dozen people out. There was a pause as order was restored.
Someone shouted 'Get a Job!', drawing loud applause. I warned that anyone else pulling stunts would also be asked to leave, as they were taking time from the public who had come to ask their questions. Most people clapped but a few sat looking sullen. There were no more interruptions...
A woman asked a technical question about recycling. Luckily James Cleverly chairs the London Waste and Recycling Board, so I called him to give a suitably technical response.
Someone asked about Boris Island airport proposals and the Mayor gave a stirring defence of his plans, which are looking more plausible with the government decision not to expand Heathrow.
An older man stood to read out his question, which ran to several pages, some stuck together. Alarmed, I sought to cut him short but he wasn't having it and the audience wanted him to continue. He wondered why Londoners had been landed with the lion's share of the bill for what was a national event - a view shared by many others in the hall. Boris stated - correctly - that this was part of the deal done by his predecessor and the Labour government.
As was the plan for an extensive Olympic Route Network of restricted lanes during the Games. Boris had worked to reduce the size of this network and its times of operation.
Jennette Arnold said we should applaud Ken Livingstone for bringing the Olympics to London. Two people clapped - or perhaps it was one person and an echo...
The unfair allocation of tickets was raised. Boris informed the audience that another tranche of tickets would go on sale in the Spring. I told them that Olympic bosses had assured us that unsuccessful applicants from the first ballot would have priority for this tranche.
The final session returned to the St Paul's protesters - referred to as 'crusties' by the Mayor earlier. Several people got up to defend the right to protest and to attack the evils of capitalism. One man acknowledged that the protests seemed incoherent but they were no less passionate for all that and he felt their demands would become clearer as their numbers swelled. I'm not so sure - crowds follow strong ideas, but ideas don't follow crowds.
An electrician asked why more locals hadn't been employed building the Olympic site. He got the standard response that most of the workers had an East London address - but they are hardly likely to commute from Eastern Europe, and I think he has a point.
Boris was mobbed by an adoring crowd as proceedings came to an end. I headed to the bar for a stiff one and ended up chatting to a couple of the more vociferous questioners - friendly people with genuine concerns.
My Labour opponent was in the bar too so I took the opportunity to introduce myself. Mandy is a youth worker from Hackney and still keen to do the job after sitting through the two hour Question Time.
All in all, a good session with a lot of meaningful questions and quite detailed answers. A good turnout on a cold autumn evening, by the audience if not by Members...