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Monday, 31 January 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 36

To reward myself for not buying a piece of clothing since imposing my shopping ban, I have allowed myself one little treat... a pair of the "Henry Holland for Pretty Polly Super Suspender Tights", quite a title isn’t it?!

I first saw these sassy tights featured on a blog a few weeks ago... and have desired them ever since. They are a hassle free way to create that sexy suspender look, can be worn as orthodox black tights if worn with a longer skirt or dress, or reveal a little more leg and patterning with a shorter outfit.

Henry Holland has always been a bold designer, pairing up with crazy model starlet Agnes Deyn and creating 80’s inspired t-shirts with catchphrases such as ‘I’ll tell you who’s boss, Kate Moss’. More recently he has joined forces with tights brand Pretty Polly, and their collaborative legwear has been a hit from the start. Last year he brought out some fabulous alphabet tights that were very popular; for 2011 he seems to be branching out into more illusionistic tights.
These Super Suspender tights are made from strong 40/20 denier with a reinforced toe, and a nice matt finish. The price isn’t too painful at £12 a pair; you can buy them here.

It is also worth checking out the Figleaves website where they have some other funky HH tights in their sale for just £2!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Hummingbird Red Velvet Cupcakes

It is disappointing when you spend the whole week looking forward to the weekend, to find these two blessed days off wet and grey. And with no signs of the London weather easing up you must find fun indoor activities to occupy yourself. So last weekend I set to work, and went on an epic trip to Sainsburys in search of all the ingredients for The Hummingbird ‘Red Velvet’ cupcakes. I have had the Hummingbird cookbook for over a year, but never had the time and motivation to actually attempt one of the recipes.

After traipsing round the supermarket I had everything, plus a few other irresistible items, namely pretty but unnecessary cake decorations. The shop came to about £25 which seemed like an awful lot for cake ingredients, but at least I got a handful of nectar points.

When you visit the mouth-watering Hummingbird shops, the cakes look dreamy and impossible to recreate, so I was expecting a challenge. Surprisingly the recipe was very easy to follow correctly and after 45 minutes of preparing and cooking, my little cakes were cooling, looking absolutely perfect. I whipped up the icing and voila! My cakes were complete and appeared just as yummy as the original versions. And it was all brilliant fun too.

For once I sat scoffing a cupcake feeling like I really deserved it.

Here’s the recipe and ingredients for you to make your very own red velvet cupcakes.


60 g unsalted butter,
at room temperature
150 g caster sugar
1 egg
10 g cocoa powder
20 ml red food colouring (preferably
Dr. Oetker Red Food Colouring)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
120 ml buttermilk
150 g plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1½ teaspoons white wine vinegar
a 12-hole cupcake tray, lined with paper cases

Preheat the oven to 170°C (325°F) Gas 3.
Put the butter and the sugar in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy and well mixed. Turn the mixer up to high speed, slowly add the egg and beat until everything is well incorporated. In a separate bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, red food colouring and vanilla extract to make a thick, dark paste. Add to the butter mixture and mix thoroughly until evenly combined and coloured (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula). Turn the mixer down to slow speed and gradually pour in half the buttermilk. Beat until well mixed, then add half the flour, and beat until everything is well incorporated. Repeat this process until all the buttermilk and flour have been added. Scrape down the side of the bowl again. Turn the mixer up to high speed and beat until you have a smooth, even mixture. Turn the mixer down to low speed and add the salt, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. Beat until well mixed, then turn up the speed again and beat for a couple more minutes. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20–25 minutes, or until the sponge bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.


300g icing sugar, sifted
50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125g cream cheese, cold

Beat the icing sugar and butter together in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed. Add the cream cheese in one go and beat until it is completely incorporated. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy- for at least 5 minutes. Do not overbeat, as it can quickly become runny.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The Troubadour

The Troubadour can make a claim to be Earl’s Court most famous cafe, not that there is much to compete with in the vicinity. It was a cosy refuge on a dreary wet Wednesday night last week when I went with a few school friends. I hadn’t realised when we arranged to rendezvous there that I had been once before.

It is best known as a music venue, and I’ve heard very good things about it on this count. My singer-songwriter cousin often gigs in the basement area, where many happening artists seem to reside, chilling out with a casual beer in hand, humming through relaxed and melancholic music – well I imagine that’s what it’s like. The place has a nostalgic feel with copper pots and pans hanging lopsided from the ceiling and crooked pictures on the walls, a sort of grubby chic charm.

A troubadour was a composer-minstrel in medieval Europe and that’s where the name originates from. This venue was born in 1954 as part of the second great London coffee craze. We booked ahead to ensure we got a table; it tends to suddenly fill up around 8 pm, even midweek. Ravenous, we squeezed into our table and ordered immediately. An interesting assortment of dishes feature on the menu, from veggie burgers to steak, fishcakes to homemade pasta. We made a pact to try them all, for research! I had the ricotta ravioli, which cost a staggering £14.50, expensive despite its homemade qualities. The pasta was cooked to perfection but unfortunately covered in too much oil making it unpleasantly greasy. Luckily the kind waiter was able to meet my request for more parmesan, and brought a charming little potful free of charge. My friend’s dishes were enjoyable but didn’t quite meet expectations considering the high prices. The chips and sweet potato wedges were very good and provided us with grazing food as we continued to natter away. Alongside our meal a good bottle of white wine was reasonably priced.

This is a great little venue, and has real character. I’ll definitely be coming back for drinks and maybe a gig, but won’t be trying the food again.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Keira Knightley stars in The Children's Hour at The Comedy Theatre

After waiting for fifteen chilly minutes at the stage door I realised... spotting a few celebrities isn’t worth all this. The crowd were told Keira Knightley and cast would be at least another hour before coming out and greeting fans. This was the first night of the new production of The Children’s Hour, the eagerly anticipated play that has just opened at London’s Comedy Theatre.

Press night isn’t until 9th February so the cast will get a gloriously unscathed three weeks of pressure free performances, before the capital’s culture vultures swoop in to judge its merits. With very few concessions a visit to this play will certainly hit your pocket hard, I was sitting right up at the top and still forked out over £50 for two tickets. I can’t complain too much, I was pretty central and the view was acceptable, it was those in the standing places that really suffered, perhaps they were just paying for the experience of ‘being there’ because they really can’t have seen much of the play. Long gone are the days of the theatre being a comfortable luxury.

I spent much of the performance worrying about my surrounding audience members and their undercover cameras. When we entered the theatre we were bombarded by bossy security guards desperate to know one thing: ‘do you have a camera??’ Luckily I didn’t because I’m sure I would have spent the whole evening feeling guilty if I had. Towards the end of the show a camera incident did occur when a steward and couple argued persistently (all in whispers) about whether or not they would delete the Keira photo they had just taken with their iphone. A photo in which I’m sure she was barely visible considering it was taken from the back of the balcony seats.

The play immediately struck me as having many similarities with Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, both follow the vindictive accusation of a troubled young girl. The Children’s Hour is predominantly about two young women who open a girl’s boarding school in New England in the 1930’s. One of the pupils, Mary Tilford, causes chaos with the shocking charge that the two women are lovers. With the help of her gullible grandmother, the school is closed and everyone’s lives are ruined. I have since discovered that the plot is loosely based on a true case in Edinburgh in 1811.

The schoolgirls (Lisa Backwell, Isabella Brazier-Jones, Poppy Carter, Marama Corlett, Amy Dawson, Isabel Ellison and Eve Ponsonby) are sweet frolicking around at the start of the play, rolling about and giggling. In fact it is a real shame they weren’t used more, as they add another dimension to the story, and without their input in the second half I felt rather distanced to the other characters. Isabella is an old friend, I performed with her years ago in W11 Children’s Opera.

Much to my disappointment the two female leads are not as marvellous as I hoped. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss is underwhelming as Martha - there is nothing very exciting about her performance. Keira Knightley’s role as Karen is not unlike the part she played in the film, Atonement, although rather less inspiring. Knightley’s accent is her biggest downfall, barely staying in place longer than a sentence or two. She did improve though and I found her final doom stricken speech controlled but strangely affecting. Perhaps these shortcomings are due to the fact that Knightley and Moss have very little stage experience, both succeeding instead in TV and film.

Bryony Hannah, as the hateful liar Mary is positively ghastly and scarily convincing. I previously saw her in the National’s production, ‘Earthquakes of London’ and was once again amazed by her unfalteringly commitment to the character. I also enjoyed watching Tobias Menzies as Karen's kind fiancé, Dr Joseph Cardin. His careful interaction with the rest of the cast makes him compelling to watch, and entirely believable. Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn is brilliant as the child’s grandmother, though occasionally has the tendency to overact.

Artistically I found this production spellbinding with evocative soundscapes by Stephen Warbeck and Paul Groothuis and atmospheric lighting from Neil Austin. The set is well utilized and Mark Thompson had designed it imaginatively.

I fear Knightley’s performance will not go down nearly as well as her part in the Misanthrope role a year ago, and after all the hype she's a little disappointing: having said that there are aspects of The Children’s Hour that I was impressed with. If you are just going for a glimpse of Keira I’d recommend you save the £85 for the extortionately priced ticket, spend the money instead on a nice meal and on your way home visit the Comedy Theatre stage door (at 10.15 ish) to see the star there, I can guarantee you’ll get a better view.

The Children's Hour continues until 30 April 2011, book here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

As You Like It at The Roundhouse

After the solemn Julius Caesar last week I was glad to see a Shakespearian comedy at the Roundhouse, the chirpy ‘As You like It’. It is a witty play that examines different kinds of love.

The strong cast seem entirely comfortable in each other’s company, and have a buzzing chemistry as an ensemble. Interactions are acute and full of delicate nuances bringing the script to life. The set is minimal, especially in the first half; a startling bright white backdrop that makes the characters' humorous expressions jump out. After the interval the auditorium, and indeed the whole building is transformed into the yearning lover Orlando’s forest, echoing with desperate pleas for fair Rosalind to find him. Visually this is very effective, and imaginatively romantic.

Johjo O’Neill is dashing as the hopeful young paramour, Orlando, he reminded me of a young Bob Dylan, with scruffy brown locks, and a mischievous glint in his eye. As you enter the theatre he stands (in character), singing to passers by, seemingly unaware of all else around him, it is a nice touch. The music within the performance is sublime, particularly from Forbes Masson as Jaques, a mad soul who wanders aimlessly with a guitar, and looks remarkably like Bill Bailey. He sings with an astoundingly beautiful falsetto voice, and I couldn’t help thinking I would like to have his melancholic refrains on my ipod. The giggling cousins are played by Mariah Gale as Celia and Katy Stephens as Rosalind. There are some charming scenes together, as they spin round each other and fall about laughing. I particularly enjoyed Gale’s performance, she is dreamy and yet speaks with great elegance.

The play is long, especially for a comedy, and began to drag towards the end... this though is perhaps the fault of writer not director, if I am allowed to criticise Shakespeare(?). Eventually all wrongs are righted, and all rejoice, rather too enthusiastically I thought: they all looked a bit silly. Thankfully the rest of the show is rather more convincing and enjoyable.

As You Like It continues until 5 February 2011, book tickets here.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Franny's Pop-up

Franny’s Pop-up was only meant to be temporary. Opening in Soho on 5th November 2010, it was due to close at the start of February, however its success has allowed it to take its place in London’s West End permanently. It occupies a huge space on Frith Street, a venue that was previously home to the chain Il Bertorelli. Upstairs there is a private dining space for 80-100 people and on the ground floor a massive area for bar and restaurant.

I came across it over the Christmas holidays when I was craving a burger for lunch. Extended sale shopping meant lunch had been postponed to 3pm, and so many places had stopped serving. We stumbled across Franny’s and were welcomed in by a very smiley man who seemed pleased to accommodate us and all our cumbersome shopping bags.

The restaurant was pretty empty so the manager came and chatted to us for ten minutes which was nice, and distracted me from my rumbling stomach. He explained about his ambitions for Franny’s and the history behind the pop-up venue. They will still close temporarily in February, while the place is refurbished and will reopen redesigned as a hip diner, taking influence from New York. They hope to bring something a bit new to Soho.

The menu is made up of classics and familiar favourites: pizza, pasta and burgers. When it reopens it will be focusing more on grills, and hopes to have a large open kitchen in the centre of the restaurant, an idea that is tried and tested and seems to involve as well as reassure customers. Prices are reasonable, £6 for burger, £2-3 for sides. I chose the Italian Job burger that came with a delicious foccacia bun, pesto, crispy bacon and mozzarella, it was better than I expected and made from good fresh meat. The chips were OK, but didn’t quite satisfy my cravings, and the courgette fritti were a massive disappointment, obviously not freshly made; they were hard with a gritty tasteless batter.

Franny’s has promise and with such a fabulous venue at their disposal they could be one of Soho’s newest hot spots. Watch out for the refurbished restaurant sometime in 2011!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 35

Something a little different this week... I am currently having a bit of a detox from shopping. After a few stints in the sales, I feel my bank account needs a bit of a break. To prevent the tempting lunchtime buying trips I have joined the gym: here’s to being fitter and richer in 2011!

No-one feels like wearing the same outfits constantly, so in order to spruce up those items from last season a bit of DIY haberdashery is in order. There are a few bloggers out there, who have great posts about their inventive DIY-ing... and I am inspired to have a go.

Sewing machines can cost, a small fortune, especially the lovely Singer machines. But despair not, I have found this adorable machine in John Lewis at a more manageable price. £50 can buy you one of these little pet sewing machines; as you can see from the pictures they come in a variety of crayon colours. Along with the purple and red I have see one in bright green too. I couldn’t help dreaming about how picturesque my bedroom would look in summer with this machine sitting on my desk. It features 2 needle positions, drop-in bobbin, and free arm for adjusting cuffs and trousers. It also has a double presser foot and push lever reverse. They recommend use for light/medium fabrics only.

Therefore my advice to you is - avoid the sales, this year’s bargains will only end up in January 2012’s charity pile. Instead give into your domestic side with this cute little sewing machine, and get creative transforming your wardrobe today.

Buy here while stocks last.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Rivals at The Theatre Royal Haymarket

Peter Hall recently celebrated his 80th Birthday and yet seems still in his directing prime, currently reviving Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 masterpiece The Rivals at The Theatre Royal Haymarket. Amazingly Hall has succeeded in satisfying modern audiences with this witty 18th Century play, despite changing little to make it relevant.

Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute and Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop are tremendous as the revered guardians. Keith is infectious, mangling the English language at every opportunity with hilarious consequences, my favourite line being: “he is the very pineapple of politeness”, the audience roared with laughter. Sir Absolute is brilliant on stage and seems to enjoy his role, he grumbles constantly (and hypocritically) about his son disobeying his strict orders. I later found out that this pair are the much-loved partners from television sitcom ‘To the Manor Born’ on stage together for the first time in The Rivals.

The narrative follows the ridiculous love chase of the young couple: Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish. They are rather more soppy, in my opinion, though my friend thought Robyn Addison, as damsel-in-distress-Lydia, particularly good and enjoyed her lovesick performance. Both seem resolute in rebelling against their elders, this it turns out is more important than the love they have for each other.

I must admit, that as much as I enjoyed Sheridan’s classic, I found its narrative rather similar to other plays I have recently seen in Covent Garden. The differences between ‘When We Are Married’, ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Rivals’ blur in my mind; all I seem to remember are the elaborate frocks and velvet clad sets that feature in all three.

I sat on the front row of the circle, seats that have, I decided the best view in the house. Near me hung a huge austere mirror reflecting much of my fellow audience members. At times during the performance I glanced across and delighted myself in watching their reactions, this added to the fun.

The Rivals continues until 26 February 2011.

Friday, 21 January 2011

London Art Fair at The Design Centre

The London Art Fair returned to Islington Design Centre this week (open until Sunday), with over 100 galleries showcasing the work of their best 20th and 21st century artists. You may have noticed the advertisements that are peppering tube stations and bus stops, or perhaps read about the event in a magazine. It certainly seems to have gained interest since last year, I don’t think I have ever seen Angel station so frantic and busy.

I worked at the fair in 2009 and 2010 with England & Co; it was a little strange visiting this year, solely as a spectator. The space is expansive; a building that is normally rather bland becomes a techni-coloured patchwork of creations. This year tickets are selling for £15 on the door, or £11 in advance. I was delighted to find I received a free sparkling drink with my ticket, and I could have easily had more than one as waiters wandered amongst the guests all evening.

Considered by many to be the premier art fair in London, I always like to check it out. The crème de la crème of the art world is usually there mingling and not just for the art . The visitors and gallery owners seem to excitedly check out each other too, who is wearing what? Who is displaying what? And which coveted pieces have been brought along for show?

Prices range enormously from small prints for under a hundred pounds to valuable pieces reaching hundreds of thousands. I am always astounded at how much people will pay for some particularly unattractive pieces. The London Art Fair has its fair share of rubble to sort through before you find the gems. Some stands are proudly displaying works that honestly look so repulsive you wonder if it can even be called ‘art’. But I guess that is part of the fun, there is something for all tastes.

My dad’s work is on display (see third picture above), as it often is; a beautiful selection of pieces that seem to really create a buzz at the England stand. Magically meticulous and thought provoking I never tire of seeing them.

Visit website here, and book your tickets now.

The Painter at the new Arcola Theatre in Dalston

Hidden away behind Dalston High Street is the new home of the Arcola Theatre, a converted paint factory which Turner and Constable probably frequented at the start of the 19th Century. Conveniently close to not one but two train stations, this area of London isn’t as distant as you may assume. Having said that, I did get a bit lost, despairing when I ended up in the messy aftermath of Dalston’s Friday food market. Resorting to technology, I consulted my blackberry and found that I’d walked right past the correct turning.

The theatre is still very much a work in progress with wires draped precariously down the walls, and many other temporary measures in place. The other visitors seemed to relish the treacherously trendy surroundings, perching on the edge of the battered sofas, glass of red wine in hand. I guess this kind of venue is what makes East London so cutting edge cool, all very Fringe Theatre.

We were all here for the opening of the new space and the special performance of ‘The Painter,’ a play written specially for the occasion by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. At 7.15 we were ushered into the theatre, an intimate auditorium with surrounding brick walls, I was immediately struck by the charming character of the place. The lighting is what makes this stage so magical, the romantic reflections, moody shadows and gentle chiaroscuro transport the audience to another age entirely. The stage is dressed beautifully with pigment stained cloths, pages and pages of drawings, candles and old furniture and most importantly the artist’s easel. When I wished to avert my eyes from the actors there was much to admire and examine on the set. As a daughter of two artists, I can honestly say this messy studio array was very accurate.

The play is split into twenty-three short scenes, fragments of the artist’s life and memories, much like a retrospective exhibition. The mesmerising Dido’s Lament begins and concludes each half of the play. Other musical excerpts are used throughout, and are mostly appropriate, although occasionally reminded me of the ‘Famous Five’ storybooks on cassette! We meet Turner as a young man in 1799, obsessive and strange, as he is starting out his career as an artist. He has just moved into his new studio with his father, to assist him. Lenkiewicz decides to focus on the artist’s emotions and reactions, unfortunately examining his fascinating body of work very little. The painful relationship he has with his vicious mother and his awkwardness with women dominate much of the story. He is loved but seems unable to love anything apart from the glorious seascapes and landscapes that he paints.

Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen has a strong set of actors to work with. Toby Jones is impressive as the great artist, the small man has great expression in his face, and becomes a persuasive lead as the play goes on. Turner’s father is played by Jim Bywater, a reserved man with a quiet demeanor, I found his performance very convincing and even quite moving at times. Niamh Cusack eventually persuades ‘Billy’ into commitment, as Turner’s widowed lover, though seems to later regret it as he ignores her, even when she is carrying his child. Denise Gough is a breath of fresh air as Turner’s prostitute friend and model Jenny, she is exciting to watch and has real presence on stage when speaking up to the arrogant artist.

There was the offer of an after show celebration, but I reluctantly declined remembering the long journey home. As we left, a brave girl stood by the door playing the accordion and singing a lilting Edith Piaf song with great gusto. It was beautiful, and a lovely end to a very memorable evening. I wish the new Arcola the best of luck and look forward to visiting again when they have the central heating working!

The Painter continues until 12 February 2011, book here.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Cirque du Soleil present TOTEM at The Royal Albert Hall

Cirque du Soleil is the name of the show on everyone’s lips this January. Returning to the mighty stage at the Royal Albert Hall they are once again wowing audiences with their impressive stunts and otherworldly acrobatics. More than any other, Cirque du Soleil is a production that whispers, ‘step away from the mince pies and get to the gym’.

'Totem' deals with the evolution of species and the development of human beings - the performers certainly illustrate the ‘survival of the fittest’. As I sat gaping at people catapulting themselves across the stage, with absolutely no fear, I wondered if they were even human. This new production is directed by Robert Lepage, the renowned Canadian theatre director, incidentally also from Quebec like the show’s origin. Tackling the theme of Darwinism he introduces us to a hoard of creatures, apes and cavemen, men in business suits and spacemen. The wizardry of the show is meticulously planned with a constantly evolving stage, making impressive use of the plain round central platform.

The evening is beautiful in every sense of the word, with an extravagant set from Carl Fillon and shimmering projections by Pedro Pires. The costumes are lavish and sparkling, and some look rather uncomfortable making the acts even more astounding. An entirely crystal covered man opens and closes the show, spiralling down from the ceiling, in a sequence that would be ideal as a Swarovski advertisement.

Highlights for me were the five cycling ladies, who wobble on tall unicycles while flipping stacks of golden bowls onto each other’s heads. I couldn’t help worrying for their safety, especially when one bowl dropped to the floor, but it was professionally recovered and all done with glowing smiles. A touching performance comes later from Canadian couple, Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme, acting out a charming love scene, entwining and stretching their bodies high on a trapeze; it is performed with ease and elegance. I also enjoyed the identical Balarus twins, who spin carpets fast on their feet and hands while one balances on the other’s head. And the finale is brilliantly executed, men bounce and flip on what look like thin planks of wood, held in the air by their strong companions.

Criticised often for the lack of logic in the show, I feel perhaps sceptics are missing the point.If I have a criticism it is that there is less variety this year with the acts and the disappointing clowns have no better material than usual.

Totem is my fourth time experiencing this magical circus company, and in fact I have never before left with such a clear idea in my mind about the message being conveyed. This is a show of extremes and magic, the concept is perhaps not there to be analysed but instead to act as an outline within which the acts can amaze and intrigue. If you leave a bit baffled, so what? It is much more fun to be mystified and leave pondering, that is the secret of the enduring success of the company. We are further confused by the language barrier that presents itself immediately: the peculiar title, the use of English and German notes in the programme and then the distinct absence of normal speech throughout the show, even the songs are in a dialect I could not recognise. This makes you feel, more than anything else, like a mere mortal outsider to the Cirque world.

Totem continues until 17 February 2011, buy tickets here.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Matilda the Musical

Matilda is the brand new musical creation from Aussie comedian and musician Tim Minchin, with a marvellous script from Dennis Kelly. The run is taking place at The Courtyard Theatre, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon. Once again I found myself amongst a gaggle of children, all clutching their Roald Dahl colouring pads and consuming copious sugary bribes from their parents.

It took us a while to drive there, especially with the distinct lack of signposts, surprising considering the importance of this theatre to Stratford. Eventually we found it, parked and wandered through the picturesque town to the venue. The 1000 plus seat Courtyard Theatre was not intended to be permanent, but merely a temporary home during the company’s Transformation project. Those who see Matilda in this building will, I’m sure, agree that it works perfectly for this piece.

Matilda is yet another example of the super kids that seem to be taking over stages everywhere; think of Billy Elliot and Oliver! Just as the little girl’s thoughts rule Dahl’s book, the tiny actress playing Matilda dominates this production and is on stage most of the time. There are ten children in the musical, and three casts, allowing them to alternate regularly. I saw brave and bold Josie Griffiths take to stage as the lead, and she was faultless, giving a performance that would put many adults to shame. I sat gawping at the tiny star, wondering how on earth she managed to learn all those lines, songs, and complicated dance moves. The other kids are brilliant too, and just as talented, I soon forgot they were children - the acting is so impressive.

Director Matthew Warchus has taken a terrific story and made it into an irresistible show. The choreography is beyond imaginative, with fun rebellions and punchy gym routines. For a first show, the Minchin – Kelly duo have written an unbeatable piece, surpassing all expectations. The songs are thoughtful and catchy, with words that sizzle. The story captures Dahl’s magical world, with a clever twist that gives the characters a real sense of depth.

The terrifyingly fabulous Miss Trunchbull is played by Bertie Carvel making his debut at the RSC with Matilda. He marches about spitting orders with sadistic glory. There is a wonderful scene when the headmistress forces poor Bruce to eat a giant chocolate cake, gleefully rubbing her chubby paws together in delight. The ghastly Wormwood parents are played by thrillingly grotesque pair Josie Walker and Paul Kaye, the cruel opposite to Matilda’s intelligence.

I’m afraid I can’t find a bad word to say about this show; there is nothing to criticise and is much more fun than I expected. And I am not the only one raving about it - Matilda has received five star reviews from everyone who’s anyone. I have all my fingers and toes crossed that this show will transfer to a London stage soon, I am desperate to see it again.

Matilda is on until 30 January 2011 at The Courtyard Theatre.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

GIVEAWAY: Be my February Girl

It has always been a little ambition of mine to design clothes. When I was a teen I designed and made jewellery with my company ‘The Bead Hive’ (see here), and now I’m beginning to venture into the clothing idea. So I have decided to make a giveaway of my first, very simple, creation: a printed t-shirt.

February is my birthday month and if it’s anything like January, will be wet and dreary. So I want to make it a tiny bit brighter for one of you with a simple white t-shirt, easy to wear with anything, with the cute pink ‘February girl’ logo on the front; inside will be sewn one of my unique ‘thoroughlymodernmilly’ name tags. The t-shirt is a small, but is on the big side, and for those who are more petite: you can cut the seams and customise it as a baggy cropped tee - that’s what I’m doing with mine! Along with the t-shirt I will be throwing in some Mac make-up, yet to be decided on.

All you have to do to be in with a chance of being crowned the ‘February girl’ is:

1) Be a follower on my page, and tell me your name

2) Tell me in no more than 50 words, what is special about February for you and write it as a comment below.

Competition open to all readers worldwide, winner will be announced on Valentine’s Day, 14th February.

The RSC's Julius Caesar at The Roundhouse

The last time I was at The Roundhouse, I was singing my heart out in my childhood choir; I was only 14 or 15 years old. I can recall the damp and musty atmosphere of the great circular space, as we all stood in formation ready to sing. That was a long time ago and the hall has been transformed since becoming the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the current ten week season. On the press night of Julius Caesar the place was full of vitality, an audience of great theatre lovers all milling about intrigued by the latest Shakespearean offering. I was directed to brilliant stalls seats and immediately felt a sense of involvement in the drama. Elevated aisles run through the audience and other nearby passageways suggested more routes for the actors to use. I noticed gaps left open on the balconies too, ready for action.

Lucy Bailey directs this explosive new production of Julius Caesar, a tale of politics and passion. The play certainly thrilled the audience, who seemed to relish in the gore. Fake blood is used in abundance, so much so that some of the audience members around me seemed to get splattered in the stuff, that’s the punishment you get for being able to afford the pricier, stalls seats I suppose. Full on violence is introduced from the start - Romulus and Remus are engaged in an aggressively physical fight to the death. Bailey certainly doesn’t shy away from this bold element of the text, it's similar in style to her production of Macbeth at the Globe.

I am sure the use of film and video will cause a stir with some critics. Large rectangular blocks are used to show projected moving film, the vision of designer Bill Dudley (Bailey’s partner). The more frantic crowd sequences are, at times distracting, but on the whole the concept is highly stimulating and gives the stage an added depth and excitement. Julius Caesar is a difficult play to stage, but this production uses the challenges to its advantage.

There is real concentration from the male strong cast, some of their angry faces look possessed at times, and with my seats being close to the aisle I could feel their wrath as they ran past terrifyingly close. Sam Troughton is less animalistic than his fellow conspirators, and has a thoughtful glint in his eye. He commands attention on stage, but more as a philosopher than fighter. John Mackay towers above him in height, but is less impressive as conniving Cassius, and I found him eventually quite irritating to watch. Darrell D’Silva is brilliant as Mark Antony, strong in stature and voice. Greg Hicks is unusually restrained as Caesar, his expression is sometimes awkward but is enjoyable to watch nonetheless. The poor man deals very well with being bludgeoned to death, in a rather complex fight scene!

The play itself is not one of my favourite Shakespeares, with the protagonist dead by the interval there is little to look forward to in the second half. However with Bailey’s powerful vision, this Julius Caesar becomes quite enthralling.

Julius Caesar continues until 5 February 2011, book tickets here.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 34

I’m excited about this week’s Hot on the Highstreet. After discovering my featured items in last Tuesday’s Metro newspaper, I felt inspired by the article to investigate further and blog about it.

The familiar brown, orange and yellow striped material must surely bring one thing to mind? When I spot this pattern it screams London Underground. It is iconic of London’s subterranean upholstery and although we rarely sit on it now (only the oldest, most retro tubes and buses still have it) it is part of our capital’s heritage; it is the design dominating London travel throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Most things come back in fashion at some point or another, and right now, this vintage print is super chic again. Squigee, the innovative surface design company, were invited to add a distinctive edge to the original London Transport moquette textile design. Moquette is a uniquely serviceable, natural wool-based material used by transport providers because of its durability and texture.

Remember your commute with one of the pieces from the collection: oven gloves, apron, tea towels, cushion covers, even an ironing board, and your kitchen will be the trendiest around. All items are on sale with prices ranging from £2.99 to £15.99. Visit the TFL website here, and get your very own piece of memorabilia.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Ice-Skating at Somerset House

The decorations are down and with the increase of tax, Christmas is a distant memory. However to get a last festive sparkle, visit the magical Somerset House where the ice-skating is staying open until 23 January. Sponsored by jewellery designer Tiffany&Co this ice rink is surely the most glamourous in town.

The huge popularity of this venue has meant most sociable hours over the Christmas period were booked up far in advance, but now that kids are back at school the tickets are less scarce. I went at the start of the New Year at 10 am, the first session of the day. It was bank holiday Monday and the kids were out in force. I chose a morning session, because a) it’s cheaper and b) it is likely to be less cold and dark.

The rink is beautiful, a daring slab of perfect ice. Glittering lights are scattered all around and a giant Tiffany themed tree stands tall at the entrance. After waiting in a rather annoyingly long queue we were given our tickets and were ready for action. The sessions are each an hour long, plenty of time I realised after ten minutes skating. It is amazing to see how everyone’s confidence grows on the ice, initially clinging to the sides and then very gradually moving out and skating, there is no other sport like it. There were several ice attendees who swooshed past at the speed of light, reminding me of the Quidditch players on broomsticks in Harry Potter. I couldn’t help thinking they were showing off: twisting and twirling on the ice. Amongst my 10-11 am group were a handful of keen skaters too (you can tell who they are from their pretty skates), varying in age immensely – two young girls of about eight were particularly impressive, giggling together as they glided expertly across the rink. From my experience it is a bad idea to watch other skaters too much, envy turns to competition and usually results in accidents.

After thirty minutes I began to feel comfortable on the ice and was pleased to find I could go quite fast. Speeding round was quite a challenge though as children, some very tiny, were everywhere, and I was constantly terrified of crashing into one, or worse still skating over a finger, ouch.

It was a wonderful morning activity, I felt healthy and proud after my hour, but I was definitely ready to leave when the time was up.

Book for your last chance to skate here.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The King's Speech

I implore you to go and see The King’s Speech. The film hit our screens on January 7th - it has already been tipped to be the film of 2011, and the year has barely started! I managed to get tickets for the first day, and sat with the excited crowd – which incidentally was enormously varied in age. It is an illuminating account of our Queen’s father, and his noble journey to the throne, succeeding despite his crippling speech impediment, an incredible true story. Stephen Fry calls the film ‘flawless, funny and very moving’, and all the major newspapers have awarded it 5 stars. The film already has seven Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture.

Colin Firth has come a long way since frolicking as prim Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary. He gave an inspiring performance in Tom Ford’s debut ‘A Single Man’, and now a Golden Globe worthy show in The King’s Speech. He has a quiet charm as the monarch, and is painfully moving as the embarrassed man who is desperately trying to cope with an unfair stammer. Last week Firth was presented with an actor achievement award in Palm Springs by fellow actor Helen Mirren who appropriately won an Oscar for playing The Queen, King George VI’s daughter.

Helena Bonham-Carter fills the screen with supportive smiles as the then Queen. It is strange to see her as an upstanding citizen after seeing her as the large-headed tyrant in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland but once I got used to the idea, I was impressed by her great versatility. I recognised one of the adorable royal children (Princess Margaret) to be Ramona Marquez from TV programme Outnumbered.

Geoffrey Rush warms the heart with his portrayal of Lionel Logue, the unorthodox speech therapist who helps the King (Bertie) find his voice. A great struggle, but through unlikely techniques and endearing challenges Lionel makes Bertie’s all important speech possible and begins a lasting friendship.

The King’s Speech is a real lesson in our country’s history as well as being a highly intelligent and witty motion picture.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Madama Butterfly (or Bangkok Butterfly) at The King's Head Theatre

With some experience of London’s newest, littlest opera company, I knew not to expect the obvious when I rocked up to the press night of Madama Butterfly at the King's Head. The opera is often heralded as Puccini’s best, though it has never been my favourite. The narrative is less gripping and the music less alluring than Tosca, in my opinion anyway. The little theatre was full to the brim, we were warned when entering that we may have to squeeze up to make room for late audience members (the seats are benches so it’s easy to shuffle along). It was good to see the venue full, and definitely created a buzz for the first night.

OperaUpClose once again shows that this genre doesn’t have to be stuffy and grand, taking classic repertoire and giving it a drastic modern makeover. The libretto has been translated into a new, funnier version by Adam Spreadbury-Maher (designer) and Ben Cooper (producer). The concept is hard to swallow initially, Butterfly is a 15 year old ladyboy in Thailand, and arrives onstage with her entourage – suitably called Gaga, Whitney, Britney and Beyonce! After a short disco party with some rich Americans, she is married to the smarmy Pinkerton. Having wooed her he then leaves her for three years promising to come back but in fact returns only to show her his new bride. And as Butterfly poignantly puts it, ‘how can she compete with a real woman’. Completely bizarre and yet strangely affecting.

Margaret Cooper is glorious as Butterfly, she soars with ease though the sorrowful top notes and seems to relish the melodies (Puccini has given most of the good ones to her!) She has a quiet energy that comes through in her endearing characterisation of the lonely young girl. Pinkerton is less impressive and seems to struggle with some of the trickier passages, it sounded as if he was perhaps suffering from a bit of winter flu. Alison Dunne is absolutely wonderful as Butterfly’s loyal maid, Suzuki. She embraces the Thai culture so naturally I felt totally convinced that she was a Thai maid.

I always look forward to the little child at the end of this opera, though in this production the human is replaced by a rather terrifying puppet. With all the other surprises I guess I shouldn’t have been alarmed, but I found the whole idea rather distracting, especially as the puppet requires three actresses to move it, crowding the tiny stage.

All in all a daring production showcasing some vibrant young talent. With such reasonable prices there is no excuse not to check out The King’s Head Theatre.

Madama Butterfly continues until 23 January 2011.