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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'Bette and Joan' at The Arts Theatre

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two names that conjure up images of beauty, glamour and theatrical glory - both women played important roles in Hollywood history. Anton Burge’s new play ‘Bette and Joan’ shows these two iconic figures in the midst of their comeback film in 1962 Hollywood, "What ever happened to Baby Jane?" Both are nervous to be appreciated, Joan is desperate "to be liked" while Bette is obsessed with her success as a dramatic actress.

The set is carefully arranged, two adjacent dressing rooms sit with an all important mirror on the wall separating the two actresses. This significantly places the women opposite each other, so at times they are literally staring at one another, almost as reflections, and yet the contrast between the dressing rooms' decor shows their obvious differences in character. Factually Bette and Joan were very alike: both were born after the turn of the twentieth century, both married four times, both were Aries, both were adopted children, both were abandoned by their fathers and the list goes on. However after Crawford’s death Davis was frequently caught saying “we had absolutely nothing in common.” In this play their similarities and differences are explored by Burge throughout.

On stage Crawford is in the dressing room to the right, all glitz and glamour - ostentatious flowers, frocks and jewels, velvet dressing gown, and the all important pepsi filled fridge. Davis, on the left is more of a free spirit, throwing her shoes off in her plain bare room, and smoking constantly while applying her haughty character's make up and generally making a mess.

Both actresses, Anita Dobson as Crawford and Greta Scacchi as Davis, give polished performances, producing impressively nuanced depictions of these great women. It helps that Scacchi looks alarmingly like the real Bette Davis, and with the melodramatic mannerisms is hilariously convincing. Dobson reminded me instantly of a younger "Dot" from Eastenders, all pinched smile and delicate features. Crawford’s clever conniving is played with a devilish humour, and yet she is equally brilliant acting out the sickly sweet side to the actress' character.

The script is dominated by a slanging match between the women, yet a glimmer of friendship is evident towards the end when the girls giggle together bitching about the younger actresses, "like that slag Monroe," who have stolen their limelight. Unfortunately I was rather distracted in the second half by pulsating, blaring music above the theatre, threatening to spoil the mood. And it doesn’t help that the seats at the Arts Theatre are rather uncomfortable, after nearly three hours of viewing I was longing to get up.

‘Bette and Joan’ is an illuminating insight into the lives of two of the greatest screen stars; we frequently see iconic photographs, but never before has such an intriguing and touching ‘behind the scenes’ story been revealed.

Continues until Saturday 25 June, book here.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 53

Work clothes are hard enough to get right in winter... finding a suitably smart and cool outfit for summer is even tougher. However I have done a bit of market research and have found the perfect, comfortable, summery, office-friendly skirt from Zara.

Zara has really excelled this season, bringing us a wide variety of fashion forward, affordable clothes. Walking into the shop, it is like a rainbow, bright garments pop out at you from every corner. Brilliant neon tailored jackets, vivid patterned silk dresses and colourful blouses and shirts, all ideal for summer days in the office.

This mini skirt comes in four fun colours: lemon yellow, green, fushia pink and orange. It has convenient pockets on either side, and is made from 48% cotton and 52% nylon, which gives the skirt a comfortable stretch. The shape and design is quite plain, with a slight flare that gives the piece a real 60s vibe. Zara’s clothes come in a simple size system, XS (6-8), S(8-10), M(10-12), L(12-14); I have found from experience that the sizes come up quite small. Smart clothes can be expensive, but at £29.99 this skirt doesn’t break the bank.

The worst thing about work clothes is the necessity to dry clean, which adds endless cost onto an item of clothing you wear a lot. I find that I try to avoid wearing delicate dry clean only clothes because I can’t afford the cleaning bills! This Zara skirt is suitable for machine wash at 30 degrees, so shouldn’t cause any problems being washed normally.

I bought the pink and wore it so much, I went back to get it in green too. I love both and feel so relieved to have a comfortable skirt that I actually like the look and feel of for work. It works particularly well with a plain white shirt, or silk top and can be worn with or without tights. I also sometimes wear my pink one with a bright orange cropped jacket for the ultimate colour clash outfit.

Visit Zara website here.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

I’ve never seen Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ before, although I have sung one of the eerily beautiful arias from it. This was the second of two Shakespearean opera's I watched last Saturday having already seen Macbeth at the Royal Opera House in the morning. Unfortunately in comparison Macbeth was rather more impressive and gripping.

The English National Opera’s new production is certainly not conventional. Director Christopher Alden has scrapped the dreamy forest in favour of a 1960's school yard setting - a tad morbid and bizarre. Some of the characters are teachers (Oberon and Tytania) and some are pupils (Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena) whilst the lover’s tiffs from Shakespeare’s original turn to adolescent arguments and teenage romances. Charles Edwards’ set is strikingly beautiful and imaginative - giant brickwork walls of an urban British boys school, complete with high windows and several floors, it is staggeringly realistic. For me the design was the highlight of the production.

Visually this opera is quite unbelievable. The vast set and at times the sheer quantity of young boys on stage is enough to make you gasp. No-one can deny it is a daring production: Theseus is a weird paedophile, young boys smoke spliffs and drink and there is even a great fire that consumes the stage just before the interval... but I couldn’t help wondering how necessary all this drama is? It is not beneficial to our understanding, confused the already complicated narrative, and made little sense to me.

The large cast dealt with this odd interpretation as best they could. I have never seen so many young children in one opera - at one point when all the boys lined up across the stage I counted nearly 40! The vocal star of the show was most definitely counter tenor Iestyn Davies as Oberon. He sings this tricky part wonderfully with pitch perfect accuracy and gorgeous tone. I could have listened to him all night. The chorus excelled producing a rich sound and bringing the best out of Britten’s stunning music.

The orchestra worked persistently away in the pit on Britten’s tricky music, and I thought their rendition evoked all the magic of the Britten’s otherworldly score. Leo Hussain performed well too, conducting with a sensitive understanding of the music. Much of this opera’s music is quiet and hesitant - musical directions that are exhausting to conduct, especially for a three hour production. However, this didn’t seem to trouble Hussain at all and he seemed completely at ease throughout.

A very strange, and yet mesmerising production of Britten’s dazzling opera, go and see it if you like your opera a bit on the wild side.

Continues until 30 June, book here.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in 'Much Ado About Nothing' at Wyndhams Theatre

The new production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ aims to entertain, it is a kooky modernised version of Shakespeare’s comic classic. The story follows two sets of lovers, the conventional couple Claudio and Hero and the love-hate duo, Benedick and Beatrice. Gossip and rumours trick Benedick and Beatrice into revealing their love for each other, whilst Claudio is fooled into rejecting Hero at the altar. After much joking around, the truth is told and happiness restored; both couples are married, and everyone celebrates with a dance.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate are reunited at the Wyndham’s Theatre as the contrary lovers, Benedick and Beatrice. I wasn’t disappointed... Tate is silly as ever, and though I usually find her irritating, with the Shakespearean wit she excels. Tennant is masterful on stage, his eye contact and quirky mannerisms are instantly attractive to watch. He shows total commitment is full of energy and is consequently utterly believable and likeable. No one can deny the chemistry between Tate and Tennant in all they do.

The setting and interpretation however lets the show down. The stage is covered in a luminous drape of material, looking rather like a giant ethereal jellyfish. This lifts to expose a white marble clad scene, with grand pillars and scenery, apparently supposed to reflect Gibraltar - sunny, kitsch and tacky. The era is early to mid 1980s. Director Josie Rourke has commented that this setting fits well with the female characters as it allows them to inherit some 1970s feminism.

We sat right at the top of the steep theatre and despite this our tickets were still £21! I think it’s awful that celebrity cast shows often exempt themselves from budget tickets.

It was exciting to finally witness David Tennant on stage, after his Hamlet success I was intrigued to see him tackling Shakespeare with my own eyes. Unfortunately the outrageous set caused too much of a distraction for me to really relax and enjoy it. It was disappointing to watch another classic mucked around with, causing much of the beauty of the script to be lost.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ continues until 3 September 2011, book here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

DIRT at The Wellcome Collection

Just up the road from the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is the Wellcome Collection, we went for a little cultural excursion after our meal at Gilbert Scott. The current exhibition is called DIRT investigating the filthy reality of everyday life. It presents a full history of squalid truths and grimy facts, explaining and illustrating our relationship with dirt and the attitudes surrounding it, whilst also displaying some intriguing works of art.

The Wellcome Collection is a wealthy institute and the exhibitions here tend to be thorough and inspiring, DIRT is no exception. It is beautifully organised in a series of rooms, highly engaging and exciting. I was pleased to find lots of young adults and teenagers looking round while I was there on a Saturday afternoon, it is clear that this is a venue that encourages interest in art and culture. It also helps that the exhibition is free!

The show begins with the concept of cleanliness and household dirt, looking at the tradition of cleaning in 17th century homes, particularly at the practice in Delft in the Netherlands. Several illuminating paintings by Pieter de Hooch depict the Dutch housekeeper’s obsessive cleaning habits, and the pride in keeping a polished immaculate house.

I found the hygiene exploration the most interesting, exploring a part of our history in which dirt and contamination have been devastating, examining the cholera epidemic in England that spread rapidly and killed hundreds within days. This room includes, a vial of infected water, maps showing the route of contamination, and other amazing artefacts. A beautiful drawing shows a woman’s face, before and after the disease has affected her. We also see photos from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary Hospital in 1861 where hygiene was totally inadequate and infection spread horrifically fast and many patients died from postoperative ‘ward fever’.

A fascinating and inspiring finale comes in the form of a feature on ‘Fresh Kills’, the largest municipal landfill in the world, situated on Staten Island in America. It is nearly three times bigger than Central Park with a peak higher than the Statue of Liberty. One photo of the site is shown above. Fresh Kills was closed in 2011 and over the next 20 years they hope to transform this area into a public park. Fittingly the name will be changed from ‘Fresh Kills’ to ‘Fresh Waters’.

DIRT continues at the Wellcome Collection until 31 August 2011, see more information here.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

St John Restaurant, Smithfields

St John Restaurant has won over the hearts and appetites of many. Two good family friends recently told me it was “definitely their favourite restaurant in London”, but is this a daring eatery only for the super keen meat munchers, those diners able to bear squeamishness inducing dishes? I went along last week for dinner to investigate for myself the truth behind St John and its reputation.

Located opposite the wonderful Smithfields market (the oldest wholesale meat market in the UK), it is immediately apparent how and why St John became this carnivore canteen, a concept that has defined the restaurant’s purpose ever since opening. The building itself is a former smokehouse, a large white property that has been impressively transformed since its abandonment in 1967. Painted all white with bare tables scattered about, I was struck at once by the clinical layout. Though plain, the decor encourages a relaxed atmosphere that is far more welcoming than most high end restaurants.

After a brief drink at the bar we went through to the dining room, an expansive hall that reminded me of my school with a slightly unpleasant smell of steaming broth flavouring the air. A kind lady hung my jacket on one of the torturous hooks that line the wall... I wondered about the poor carcasses that would have previously hung there.

Freshly baked bread was delivered with our menus. It soon became apparent, that although St John is not suitable for vegetarians, it certainly offers a range of dishes that venture far beyond offal and innards... a fact that many seem unaware of. Knowing my own meat threshold, I decided to have a main and dessert. The mains arrived steaming, Braised Duck Leg, Turnips & Bacon for me and Rabbit Saddle, Carrots & Aioli for him. Both were presented primitively on the plate, no fancy decorating or unnecessary fuss, the rabbit looked quite funny plonked next to a whole carrot! The duck was cooked perfectly, rich and soft, falling easily off the bone. The accompanying turnips were pretty tasteless and a little under seasoned for me. I preferred the rabbit, an absolutely delicious hunk of meat, full of flavour.

For me it is the bakery that is the most enticing attraction at St John. An adorable addition to the dining room that sits next to the bar. After peering in on our arrival, I was very excited about how these baked treats may be included in the puddings. We had Poached Peaches & Toasted Brioche, and Apricot Crumble & Vanilla Ice-Cream. Both were a success, wholesome simple puddings, made with the freshest of fruit. To take home I asked for half a dozen homemade madeleines, they came with the bill in a brown paper bag, the smell so sweet and appetizing that other heads turned as they arrived. Oh and they tasted absolutely heavenly too, providing us with a perfect little breakfast the following day.

It was great fun being at St John and having a nice meal without worrying whether I was wearing the “right” outfit, or talking too loud. There is a laid back vibe and no stuffiness and this definitely affects the dining experience. However the meal for two still cost £60 (for two courses with a drink each) and with such brilliantly fresh ingredients I expected more... the highlight of a Michelin star restaurant shouldn’t be the little cakes at the end, should it?

Visit St John website here.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 52

Summer is fast approaching, and in a few days time I’m going for my first fix of sunshine. For the late May Bank Holiday I am off to Gran Canaria to lap up the rays. Hopefully my skin will get a bit of much needed colour, and my head some necessary rest. Sorting through my stored bags labelled “summer clothes 2010” depressingly confirmed to me that I have no suitable bikinis for a glamorous weekend away, and with a tight budget it seems that D&G leopard print swimwear is well out of reach. H&M have some great patterned two-piece outfits but from experience I know these fade fast, and become unflattering within minutes of splashing around by the pool.

I had never heard of TAVIK Swimwear before I saw other bloggers mention this designer’s range. After a bit of internet searching I found that they are a California based label making surf and swim beachwear for men, and launched their women’s swimwear collection last Spring. There is a flashback feel to their summer 2011 range of bikinis and costumes, with psychedelic patterns reminiscent of the 60s and 70s. In the garments I’ve seen, striking prints and wacky colours dominate, both of which flatter and accentuate a glowing tan, and stand out on the beach.

Being a US make, it is hard to find TAVIK stockists in the UK, and they are certainly more expensive over here. After a bit of research, I found you can buy pieces from the range on both the ASOS and the Urban Outfitters UK websites, and better still ASOS have some of the pieces reduced.

With the sale bikini sets coming in at around £60 I think TAVIK is still a bit out of my budget unfortunately, but definitely a step in the right direction. If you need a highstreet bikini that will last, TAVIK may just be the answer to your prayers.

Friday, 20 May 2011

CHANEL Giveaway No.2

To mark the release of the newest Chanel limited edition nail vanishes today, Thoroughly Modern Milly is having another CHANEL Giveaway...

Khaki Rose from the last limited edition Chanel collection is up for grabs... it sold out instantly in shops, but I have a bottle here for one lucky winner.

Just follow my blog and write your email address below and you will be in with a chance of winning this much desired new nail varnish. For an extra entry mention my giveaway on your blog and post the link below.

Good Luck!

Cherry Orchard at The National, Olivier Theatre

‘The Cherry Orchard’ is Anton Chekhov’s final play, and has become one of his most familiar. Translated many times over, it is now regarded to be a classic all over the world. When I arrived for the first night of the National’s new production of the play I was aware that I was in the minority, having not seen this play performed before. The work is lengthy, as is much of Chekhov, and with very little storyline it is easy to get lost in the words and endless speeches, I felt quite dazed by the end. It doesn’t help that the character names are so difficult to distinguish to untutored ears.

We were lucky to be sitting in good central circle seats that only cost £5 each, thanks to the National’s brilliant entry pass scheme, and could see the huge stage well. The wooden set is simple but stunning and alludes perfectly to a picturesque Russian country estate. Aside from aesthetics, designer Bunny Christie has managed to create a real atmosphere and character with her insightful vision.

Ranyevskaya, a Russian aristocrat arrives back at her family home with her relatives and friends. The house includes a large and well-known cherry orchard that holds many memories for the family members. Unfortunately the land must be auctioned to pay off a mortgage debt. The family do very little throughout the play, talking about the importance of love and life and wandering about aimlessly or having a party. The property is eventually sold to the wealthy landowner, and the family leave to the devastating sound of the orchard being chopped down.

Zoe Wanamaker is the star appeal as glamorous Ranyevskaya, lady of the house, and on opening night she was truly worthy of her status. Wanamaker sweeps the stage with such charm that you can’t help but smile. Her features are quite similar to a cabbage patch doll, and there is something particularly endearing about her expressive face. Confident and assured, she gives a wonderful performance, at times hysterical. She is surrounded on stage by a brilliant cast; an excitable Charity Wakefield as the beautiful younger daughter Anya and Claudie Blakley, who is perfectly prim as the fastidious adopted daughter Varya. Of the smaller parts, it is Sarah Woodward that really stands out as jovial performer Charlotta.

Whether to define ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy or tragedy often causes debate, and it is a decision each director can determine in their portrayal. The final saddening moments of the National’s production reflect the overall contemplative feeling of the show, as we watch the poor old man struggle alone whilst everyone else has left the house and cherry orchard behind.

Cherry Orchard continues until July 28, book here.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Harwood Arms Restaurant

The Harwood Arms combines the best of both worlds: it is a relaxed gastro pub with food exceptional enough to receive a Michelin star. The restaurant is pleasantly rustic with a low key vibe, completely inconspicuous from outside. It is a successful collaboration of several big names: Brett Graham of the famed Ledbury restaurant, Mike Robinson of the acclaimed Pot Kiln pub in Berkshire and Edwin Vaux from the renowned Vaux Brewery.

We were seated at a nice wooden table in the centre of the dining area. I immediately noticed the no fuss attitude, napkins tied with string and dainty fresh garden flowers adding colour to each table. I’m all for a Michelin starred restaurant minus the poncey atmosphere but here I found the service a little too relaxed, even a tad on the sloppy side. A scatty girl in jeans casually wandered around getting us our water and drinks seemingly when she felt like it, and seemed nervous as she opened a bottle of red wine for the next door table, embarrassingly splashing a few drops. My friend tasted one of their special ales, while I succumbed and had a glass of Prosecco, priced reasonably at £6.

Warm potato bread and rye bread arrived with some soft yellow butter. The potato was particularly delicious, soft comforting dough with a perfect crisp crust. We opted for two courses: main and dessert, eating in the evening I felt I couldn’t manage three. The Harwood Arms is known for its fine game and wild food, predominantly from Berkshire, and this is evident from the meaty menu. I chose grilled leg of Hampshire Down lamb with fennel puree, young market vegetables and stewed courgettes. The meat was succulent with a delicious garlicky flavour, though perhaps a little undercooked for me and I had to leave the rarer parts. The fresh vegetables were a lovely accompaniment, I particularly enjoyed the wonderfully flavoured courgettes, sweeter and tastier than I have ever experienced before.

My guest had the grilled T-bone and crispy shoulder of Berkshire fallow deer with garlic potatoes, pickled beetroot and field mushrooms. Elegantly presented on a wooden platter, this was essentially deer cooked three ways. Most enticing was the appetising curled sausage, after trying a little of everything I decided I also rather liked the shoulder meat encased in a crispy breaded shell. A sucker for garlic I couldn’t resist stealing a few of the yummy little potatoes too.

Puddings were large as you would expect for £7/8. No chocolate choices were available, instead most were very dairy based: rice pudding, honey ice cream, buttermilk pudding or cheeses, oh and rhubarb jam doughnuts served with sour cream. So we had the heather honey ice cream with honeycomb and hobnob ginger creams and the buttermilk pudding with blood orange sorbet and demerara sugar shortbread. Both were nice, though neither sensational... I found the honey ice cream with honeycomb a bit too sweet, though the homemade hobnobs were very good. I was too full to properly enjoy my taste of buttermilk pudding which is basically like pannacotta, but not as creamy.

We departed soon after desserts, and left the Harwood Arms as quiet and secluded as we had found it. I must admit, I was hoping for more, as I had heard such good things about this restaurant and the Ledbury mastermind, Mike Robinson. The bill for two came to £60, for which I’ve had better value and tastier meals.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

HMS Pinafore at The King's Head

HMS Pinafore brings back many happy memories for me. At 15 I performed in Gilbert and Sullivan's classic for a school production and revelled in the upbeat numbers and silly dances. This comic operetta is the fourth collaboration between Arthur Sullivan (music) and W.S Gilbert (words) and received international acclaim unlike any before.

The story takes place on the great ship, HMS Pinafore. The captain’s daughter, Josephine loves a lowly sailor, Ralph Rackstraw and the romance proceeds despite the difference in their ranks. Her father has other plans and has arranged for Josephine to marry Sir Joseph Porter. We watch as the young damsel battles between her duty and heart, with some hilarious surprises along the way.

This was, by far, the best production I have seen at the King’s Head. This venue often hosts young opera companies tackling big romantic works (challenging for even the most experienced of singers); G&S is certainly more do-able for young professionals than Puccini. HMS Pinafore is a piece that suits this setting as well, and they adorn the plain black matchbox stage perfectly. Designer James Perkins uses simple props to add character and magic to the set, I particularly liked the hanging sun and moon, smiling down over the action on stage.

John Savourin directs and choreographs as well as being a hilarious Captain Corcoran with wit and charm by the bucketload. He stages the show simply but maintains a real focus, I was truly captivated throughout. David Menezes is less exuberant as the slightly pathetic Ralph Rackstraw. His voice is pleasing enough, but sadly his unchanging limp expression means he is rather uninteresting to watch. He is my only reservation, the rest of the cast are energetic, taking special care to pronounce every syllable of Gilbert’s words, and using the humour to their advantage.

A piano duo replaces Sullivan’s orchestra, and what a triumph they are too. Exceedingly talented David Eaton and James Young (of ‘The Eaton-Young Piano Duo’) bounce about on the piano stool giving a wonderfully joyous rendition of the famous score.

It seems a fun night was had by all, the audience left chuckling satisfied by the evening’s entertainment.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Udderbelly Festival at Southbank

The Udderbelly Festival comes to the Southbank every summer, inhabiting a flexible structure (a large upside down purple cow!) that seats four hundred and hosting many creative performances including plays, concerts and comedy shows. Boasting twelve weeks of affordable entertainment on the beautiful Southbank and an eccentric garden that has many delicious food and drink stalls, it is a great place to hang out in the warm summer months.

In the coming weeks comedy legends like Jason Byrne and Mark Dolan will be strutting their stuff for the London crowds. The shows I am most excited about are ‘Frisky and Mannish’ and ‘Showstopper’. Frisky and Mannish: The College Years is the newest show from an extraordinary comedy duo - they never fail to produce a great show, and are both exceptionally musically talented and hilarious. More unmissable entertainment is sure to come from Showstopper! who improvise a musical. Each show the brilliant cast create a brand new musical on the spot, making every performance different and unique.

I stumbled across Udderbelly by chance a few weekends ago, while out on the Embankment with a few friends. We stopped to see what was on offer, and sat in the sunshine with a glass of cider each. It has a great atmosphere, and with free entry anyone can walk in and enjoy an event.

Shows on every day until 17 July, book here.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 51

Superga have launched their UK website just in time for spring. This Italian shoe brand marks its 100th birthday this year. In 1911 Walter Martiny started up a factory in Turin to make comfortable shoes with vulcanized rubber soles and the Classic Superga 2750 Heritage style was born! Since 1911 the company has expanded and now a variety of Superga trainers are made, available in every colour of the rainbow.

Despite the extensive range, my preferred style is still the classic 2750. With a low cut ankle and chunky sole, the shape is designed to complement the foot - a sophisticated sneaker appropriate for the beach or the office. They definitely have a fun feel, and thanks to the variety and androgynous style are brilliant for men, women or kids.

Superga are a much needed alternative to Converse and have a more vintage look. With a strong sturdy build, they can be used for sport too, if the emergency arises. I first noticed them in a magazine featured as part of the ideal summer wardrobe and they are increasingly stocked in London shoe shops. I eventually gave in to temptation and bought a 2750 classic pair in navy blue. I haven’t taken them off since.

Adding some British charm to the campaign is our favourite fashion idol Alexa Chung. The website shows the Chung’s photoshoot with these iconic shoes, she illustrates their versatility, pairing them with floral summer dresses as well as tom-boy denim shorts and shirt. If they are good enough for Alexa they are good enough for anyone.

A pair of Superga will cost you £40. Sold on the website but also in shoe stores all over, and with the addition of half sizes it is easy to find the perfect fit.

Visit Superga website and buy here.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Gilbert Scott Restaurant

King’s Cross is still grotty in places, but the new St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is definitely a step in the right direction, and welcomes tourists off the Eurostar in true British style. The glorious neo-gothic palace that has been home to only rats and bats for the last twenty years, opens after a £150 million revamp. It is epic in size and decor, the restorers have done a spectacular job.

Inside the hotel, Marcus Wareing presents his second London restaurant, The Gilbert Scott. This is a great British brasserie, named after the original building's architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott. It is not only the name that pays homage to this great master though; the food celebrates the very best of the UK’s culinary history, adding a modern twist to some delicious traditional dishes.

The restaurant opened on May 5th, I visited several days after for lunch. I felt very special walking through the grand halls, past an exquisitely decorated bar, to a large sophisticated banqueting hall... the wonderfully high ceilings give the dining room a very fresh and airy feel.

We were brought bread (weird but wonderful fennel flavoured), though with no side plates or butter knife we had to just clumsily munch on it, sprinkling crumbs all over the table. The day prior to our meal I had been emailed with the menu, so I knew what to expect and didn’t take long to choose. The menu is well balanced with a variety that caters for all kinds of foodies – veggies, meat lovers, with fish and lean green dishes for the health freaks. And a long list of sides for those who really like to indulge!

My friend had visited Gilbert Scott with four girlfriends on opening night, so I had a brief review from her, letting me know exactly which food to order and not order. I took her advice and chose Queen Anne’s artichoke tart (globe artichokes and tarragon dressing) to start and then the Queen’s potage (chicken, pistachio, pomegranate, mushrooms) for the main event. A whopping great tart was delivered to me, warm and smelling delicious. My first impression was that it was too lemony, a citrus taste that clouded the delicate flavour of artichoke. The pastry was scrumptious and melted in the mouth, and the tarragon dressing provided a vinegary kick. I couldn’t finish it, and decided as they took my plate away that this recipe would be better as a little canapé. A mouthful would be perfect but ten mouthfuls was too samey and not exciting enough for my palate - an unfortunate example of a vegetarian dish needing to work twice as hard to satisfy. My main was cooked to perfection, tender breast of chicken coated in a wonderfully nutty breadcrumb mixture, and alongside it three very yummy chicken dumplings. The sauce was rather watery though, its opaque appearance rather unappetising. I ordered mash to accompany and this didn’t disappoint, creamy and soft it was a welcome addition.

My companion chose Mushrooms on sippets (red wine sauce, bone marrow) to start and then London Pride battered cod (with mushy pea mayonnaise and chips). He seemed to really enjoy both, and barely uttered a word while making his way through the hefty portion. I tasted the starter and was unimpressed - a very plain dish consisting of mediocre bread and an uninteresting slice of mushroom; the sauce was flavourful but it was definitely not worth £7.

Cocktails were definitely a highlight of our visit, unique concoctions with unusual flavour pairings. The menu provided much entertainment, trying to decide which of the exotic combinations to have. After much deliberation we both opted for short cocktails: 1873 – Bombay sapphire, apple, cranberry, rhubarb, charged with CO2 for me and a Favela Sour – Leblon Cachaca, Velvet Falernum, lime, demerara syrup, egg white, Peychaud for him. Both were divine, inventive and expertly mixed; they also looked beautiful. Mine tasted a little like loveheart sweets, with a fizz which I guess was from the CO2. I was pleased to see that all the cocktails use Bacardi spirits which are definitely superior in mixing.

To finish we shared a dessert, the warm chocolate in a pot with chocolate cornflakes. It arrived piping hot in a terracotta dish, and looked a bit like a helping of soil. It was luxuriously rich, a bitter dark chocolate goo with sweet crispy cornflakes and a dollop of crème fraiche to cut the flavour.

Perhaps not quite Michelin standard food but a wonderful experience nonetheless, with a setting that beats any other.

Book to eat at The Gilbert Scott here.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Secret Cinema

You may have heard whisperings about Secret Cinema, a special company that host exciting shows focusing on a particular, carefully chosen film, usually old and often forgotten. As a spectator, you are instucted not to utter a word about your experience which is how it maintains its mystery and continuing appeal. Consequently this "review" cannot divulge certain details and will have to act more as an advertisement to encourage you all to get involved in this original and exhilarating idea.

Tickets are priced at £35 (or £25 for students), with limited 3 or 4 week runs - needless to say spaces sell out very fast. You are given cryptic instructions: where to meet and what time and what to wear; this is usually all the clues you are allowed, though for my showing we were also asked to print and complete personal identity forms, our details determined which group (a, b or c) we were in.

We arrived at Leake Street near the Waterloo Tunnels at 12.30 ready for whatever was in store. Told to wear late 1950s and 1960 smart outfits, I came in head to toe vintage Balmain... a striking white and red striped full length suit I bought in a French market last summer. It was fun to take it out for the first time though completely impractical for the dust-ridden underground setting of the performance.

Every season a different film is shown which dramatically alters the surrounding entertainment. From my experience and speaking to others about their trips to Secret Cinema, it seems the layout is not dissimilar for each production... once admitted inside the audience is involved in a drama that takes you into the world of the film you will later watch.

I was overwhelmed by the whole production, and the incredible detail they had gone to, to create such a moving and realistic world. I had no idea what to expect from Secret Cinema which made the event all the more surprising and at times even scary.

I won't tell you what film I saw... can you guess from the photos I took?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Kingdom of Earth at The Print Room

I was not around in the 1960s to know what it was like, but ‘Kingdom of Earth’, a primal and strikingly bleak 1968 play by Tennessee Williams, feels to me as if it is set much earlier. The Print Room are staging this forgotten play for Williams’ centenary year.

We are first confronted with a statuesque mount of clay, so big it covers a substantial area of the room, and casts an imposing shadow over the audience, a constant reminder of the characters' impending doom. This play has only three players, just as the previous production at the Print Room did. Young and wildly energetic on stage, there is an enthusiasm in this cast that transfixed me in my exhausted post-work state. All three are impressively assured; I detected no faltering despite the intimidatingly intimate layout of the stage and the obvious daunting nature of ‘press night’.

Lot, a scrawny dying transvestite returns to his family home in the Mississippi Delta with his new TV wife, eccentric Myrtle. Here his animalistic half-brother, Chicken has been left to tend to the property, but is given no payment or recognition for his work, although he does have signed proof that when Lot dies the house will be his. A great flood is coming, threatening their lives. As Lot deteriorates he hopes to steal back the farm for his wife, while also desperate to pay tribute to his mother’s memory.

Of the three actors, I was most amazed by Joseph Drake, who I annoyingly recently missed playing the title role in ‘Vernon God Little’ at the Young Vic. Dressed in a vintage white suit and clinging pathetically to his ivory cigarette holder, he perches languidly on his mummy’s gold chairs, and gives a performance that is strange but brilliantly executed and oddly believable. His TB stricken rendition is painfully realistic and as he groaned and writhed about the floor tangled in a white dress I couldn’t help but shudder and turn away. Brother Chicken is performed as the exact opposite, a brute of a man, coated in a layer of mud. David Sturzaker seems to take it in his stride and roams about, menacing and yet strangely enticing. Showgirl Myrtle is taken on by fabulously confident Fiona Glascott, who has a difficult role playing the chatty blonde between the brothers. She could give a masterclass in southern accents, hers is so convincing, even managing to keep it up when speaking at great speed. She loses not a moment's concentration, and shows a real understanding of the role particularly towards the end of the production as she learns the truth about her situation.

Director Lucy Bailey triumphs, as she always does with these morbid pieces... I suggested to the Print Room that they attempt a musical next, but the idea was sneered at! This is a theatre that wants to say something new, always challenge themselves and the audience. The set, complete with dripping water from the ceiling and fresh clay, was being watered for the next performance as we left. This imaginative design comes from Ruth Sutcliffe, winner of the 2009 Linbury Prize for Stage Design; she is one to watch.

I sat next to Tom (who owns the Tennessee Williams estate) and he preached to me before the show, “there is so much more to him that just Streetcar, everyone wanted another Streetcar, but Williams at his second best is still better than most.” And with this production I think he might be right.

Kingdom of Earth continues until 28 May, book here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Delicate Balance at The Almeida

There is not much to Edward Albee’s ‘A Delicate Balance', the new show at the Almeida. The play is rather overshadowed by the playwright’s earlier, better known piece ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ I booked tickets far in advance for this production, convinced that it would sell out thanks to the starry cast that includes Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton, but when I went along on the first night, there were still a few seats empty.

The notices by the entrance warn of two intervals - this immediately set off alarm bells in my head; it was going to be a long night. Parked in the cheapest £8 seats, we had several pillars restricting our view and were quite squashed on sofa benches among a group of loud Americans.

Life is pretty good for urban socialites Agnes and Tobias until their house is invaded by a troop of uninvited visitors. They now have to deal with Agnes’ rowdy alcoholic sister, their recently divorced (for the fourth time) hysterical daughter, and a couple of close friends who have been terrorised in their own home (by what we never find out) and so have come to stay, indefinitely. Accepting of their fate, Agnes and Tobias soon realise that these guests are revealing unwanted truths about their own lives.

The story sounds more enthralling than it is in reality. Set entirely in a comfortable sitting room the show feels quite static, with little action and even less excitement. It is incredibly slow paced, and if you fell asleep for an act you wouldn't miss much plotline. The acting is, on the whole, convincing though not outstanding. I loved Imelda Staunton’s rendition of the mad drunken sister, gallivanting around causing trouble, shouting rudely and playing the accordion! Though she isn’t usually the villain, this role suits her and she had a real sparkle in her eye on opening night. Penelope Wilton and Tim Pigott-Smith are a good leading couple, though several line slip ups led my attention astray. I couldn’t stand Lucy Cohu as Julia though, she seemed completely insincere and shrieked in an irritating fashion throughout, she is more annoying adolescent than distraught divorcee.

The play came to an end after three hours, there were cheers of approval from the audience at the final curtain call, while I sat relieved it was over.

A Delicate Balance continues until 2 July 2011, book here.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 50

In a variation on the theme of last week’s hot on the highstreet, I introduce to you some of my other favourite highstreet spring collaborations. Get your very own little piece of designer with these much cheaper collections.

Antoni and Alison are a dynamic duo, British designers with a very British flair. Their clothes are quite art-based and sometimes use a ‘stupid’ concept to present garments with silly quirky slogans. I have visited their dizzy little shop on Rosebury Avenue, and was fascinated by it all, a museum of exciting and bizarre artefacts amongst their wonderful clothes.

This season Antoni and Alison have contrived some witty remarks for UniQlo, and together they’ve made some hilarious bright t-shirts, casual and very easy to wear. Bold statements such as ‘I hate my hair’ and ‘I can play the piano’ are used on the front, and there are about twenty different illustrations to collect. I hadn’t noticed this collaboration until I saw my trendy little sister sporting one the other day. If it’s as popular as the Jil Sander partnership I’m sure it will sell out in no time. At the moment there are still quite a few online, buy here (£12.99 or two for £19.99, bargain!)

Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff are the designers behind London’s most talked about, up-and-coming label, Meadham Kirchhoff. The clothes are girly, candy floss tinted with a touch of mystery - ethereal garments unlike any other. The prices are painfully steep though making it hard for most of us to afford these charming gems. Meadham Kirchhoff presents its second collection with Topshop this spring, featuring incredible layered skirts and dresses that are beautifully dishevelled and amazingly flattering. See the whole collection and buy here.

And finally Matthew Williamson has teamed up with charity Too Many Women (raising funds for Breakthrough Breast Cancer) to create a fun neon beach bracelet that will be sold in Accessorizes all over the country for £15. Featured in this month’s Vogue.