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Thursday, 30 June 2011

'Two Boys' at ENO

‘Two Boys’ is the new opera from talented young musician and composer Nico Muhley with librettist Craig Lucas, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in collaboration with the ENO. It is based on a poignant (and true) news story - we watch Inspector Anne Strawson as she struggles to find 13 year old Jake’s killer. There is one obvious lead – a teenage boy caught on CCTV leaving the murder scene, and yet as the narrative unfurls it seems there is more to this crime than the obvious facts. To discover the truth, Detective Strawson must delve into a menacing cyberworld of internet sites and chatrooms.

I am usually not keen on modern operas, preferring the opulence of the classics, and yet ‘Two Boys’ kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The clever storytelling, with tiny clues revealed throughout, left me desperately trying to solve the murder mystery myself; it was completely engaging and captivating, I even forgot about the Andy Murray match taking place simultaneously.

Muhley’s music is complex and requires great concentration from all participants. Rumon Gamba has a challenging job conducting in the pit, and he really exerts himself keeping it all perfectly together. Luckily on opening night, everyone was 100% committed and the result was a stunning and ethereal sound-world that enveloped the audience. It is an enchanting score - spooky and beautiful, imaginative and aggressive, and I found it heartbreakingly moving; towards the end I could feel tears sting my eyes.

Vocally, I enjoyed the chorus moments best: massive, grand, multi-layered writing that conveys the overwhelming reach of the internet. These moments of polyphony hark back to Palestrina’s intricate motets but here the cutting modern lyrics present an alarming juxtaposition. Unfortunately some of the solo lines are drowned by the rich, expansive orchestral textures, a balance will hopefully evolve as the run goes on. This is particularly true for Susan Bickley as Detective Anne Strawson, she gives a stunningly convincing performance dramatically but is vocally not quite powerful enough to always be heard clearly. The two boys however, Nicky Spence as adolescent Brian, and Jonathan McGovern as the young victim, are both outstanding.
Bartlett Sher’s staging is beautifully realised through Michael Yeargan’s designs, a set that really adds to the production. The large chorus stand illuminated eerily at the back while other characters are elevated in darkly lit towers across the front of the stage - it is oddly magical and otherworldly, perfect for depicting the cyberspace realm.

In my opinion, Nico Muhley’s new creation is an operatic masterpiece that will not only stun audiences but will also send out an important message about the dangers of the internet.

Two Boys continues until 8 July, book here.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Emperor and Galilean at The National, Olivier Theatre

You probably haven’t heard of the play ‘Emperor and Galilean’... I hadn’t before I booked tickets a few months ago. This epic historical drama by Henrik Ibsen was written between 1868 and 1873 and was described by the playwright as his most important work, and yet very little is known of it. In fact the National are the first to take on the brave task of staging it in English.

The play instantly poses many tricky challenges: the original work comes in the form of two plays, consists of ten acts lasting over eight hours in total and the drama takes place over dozens of years and spans thousands of miles of land. The National commissioned Ben Power to write a new adaptation of the piece. Power overcomes all these tests in his engaging adaptation, condensing down Ibsen’s masterpiece into a more manageable three hour performance.

The drama follows the life of Julian, ruler of the Roman Empire from AD361-363. As the nephew of the Roman Emperor Constantius he is under constant restraints in Constantinople. An intelligent young man he is desperate to escape and explore, and when his older brother, Gallus is assigned the role of Caesar, Julian is free to go to Athens. Discovering the allure of worshipping ancient pagan gods, Julian leaves behind belief in Christianity, and consequently his devoted friends too. Personally he struggles constantly with the Christian-Pagan debate, seeking advice and approval fromthe elderly Maximus. Eventually he is crowned Emperor, abolishing Christianity in flavour of Paganism.

It certainly is a tour de force – a cast of over 50, and at least 10 scene changes it is quite a sight to behold. Jonathan Kent has done a brilliant job directing this play, presenting us with a performance that is fluid and imaginative and surprisingly easy to understand. In fact this version of ‘Emperor and Galilean’ is not even very Ibsen-esque, and I enjoyed it a great deal more than I expected to.

Andrew Scott takes on the vast role of Julian and is on stage almost non-stop for the whole performance. The emotional energy he brings to the role is impressive - he gives a passionate and intense depiction that is needed to make such a complex character convincing. Also admirable is his ability to transform and mature so effectively, growing from the pale scrawny teenager, to a great Emperor decades later. Brilliant too is the interaction between Julian and his three friends, his genuine anguish when he decides to leave them is terribly moving and affecting. There is strong support for Scott from the rest of the cast: Nabil Shaban as the cruel Emperor Constantius, and Ian McDiarmid as a menacingly persuasive Maximus. John Heffernan as Peter and Jamie Ballard as Gregory both provided some light against Andrew Scott’s shade, as two kind but feeble friends of Julian. Not every actor was to my taste though. James McArdle was irritatingly limp and monotone as preacher Agathon and Genevieve O’Reilly was ridiculous as Helena, the quiet girl who, after eating a poisoned peach, rips her clothes off and wriths insanely across the stage.

It is a deeply poignant play, and Power’s version only emphasises this more, highlighting the powerful man’s struggle with himself and his beliefs. A few stunning performances and some awesome visuals create an overwhelming performance that deserves a large round of applause at final curtain call - certainly more than my audience gave it, who pathetically seemed to be half asleep by the end.

Emperor and Galilean continues until 10 August 2011, book here.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Devil's Festival at The Print Room

After a successful first year The Print Room present to you The Devil's Festival, an eclectic mix of dance, music, theatre and art projects. This two week summer bonanza brings together all aspects of the creative world in some exciting contemporary pieces, celebrating the inspiring new work of talented young artists, choreographers, and performers. I went along to the final invited dress rehearsal to check it out before anyone else.

It was pouring with rain, and visitors to the Print Room were huddled in their tiny foyer pleased to be somewhere dry. First up in the rehearsal was the dance piece, 'Kanaval' choreographed by Hubert Essakow. The routine is inspired by the photographs of Leah Gordon and the film The Devine Horsemen, some of which are on display elsewhere in The Print Room vicinity. It is performed by Benny Maslov, Benjamin Ord, Hannah Rudd and Fukiko Takase and is the longest of the four featured festival pieces. There is something instantly aggressive about the movement and gestures we are watching, the dancers are almost animalistic. It is striking and in some places quite harrowing to watch such force, but I found it moving and gripping, and was hugely impressed with the dancers' unfaltering stamina.

The next two plays were'Swan Song' by Anton Chekhov and 'Fewer Emergencies' by Martin Crimp. The Chekhov piece is only 18 minutes long, and the playwright claimed to have written it in just one hour and five minutes. The play shows a brief encounter with aging actor, Svetlovidov and is pretty much a monologue, an afterthought of his life in the theatre and his love of the stage. Malcolm Rennie gives a stunning performance as Svetlovidov, nuanced and believable and carefully thought through. Despite its brief length it felt like we were being given a real insight into this characters life.

The second dramatic piece is a short play from trendy and fiercely modern playwright Martin Crimp. Don't expect to understand it, I couldn't, we listen to bursts of conversation excerpts that are entirely abstract and bizarre. The acting here is impressive too, with particularly convincing performances from the two girls Emma Dallow and Nicola Harrison.

Finally we are treated to Petra Jean Philipson's incredible sound and light installation. While we wait in the foyer a huge white tent is put up in the theatre, filled entirely with white fluffy pillows. We are invited inside, but not until we have slipped into more appropriate outfits: all in one white paper boiler suits complete with hoods and booties! After everyone stopped giggling and got over the novelty of the idea it was quiet and contemplative in the tent. ‘Of the things we do not see’ is an experience that is supposed to heal your body using creative stimuli. Amazing Mongolian singing and music sooths you gently and the vibrations melt peacefully into your body. It is an amazing concept and the 20 minutes of meditation were not enough for me, I soon fell asleep and would have been quite happy to spend the night in this wonderfully calm structure.

The Festival is on now, for two weeks until Saturday 2 July. Only on Saturdays will all four pieces be available to see, on weekday nights the shows will alternate, each pair showing every other night, book here.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 57

This Monday, with the sales well under way I thought I'd indulge in showing you all a few of my favourite designer buys, all of which have mercifully slashed prices. Working very close to Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges, the sales are an inevitably tempting time for me. Lunchtimes are spent pining after reduced garments, debating and trying to justify how and if I should buy those (usually unattainable) items.

Of my many favourites, here are my top five:

Marlene Birger leather waistcoast: Danish designer Marlene Birger takes inspiration from the classic styles of the 50’s and 60’s for her timeless, elegant and easy-to-wear designs. The waistcoat, pictured above, is now selling in certain retailers for a snip of the full price. This gorgeous, sleeveless, studded jacket is an absolute steal and will last you forever - only improving with wear. I bought the last one in Harvey Nichols, with a few studs missing - they sold it with a staggering 70% off. Buy online on the M.B website here for £389, originally £635.

T by Alexander Wang collection: if you haven't checked out the Outnet website yet I would urge you to. Their selection of designer clothes and accessories are permanently discounted - mostly half price but often you can find a very reasonable 70 % off bargain! T by Alexander Wang is the fabulous diffusion line devoted to the ‘model off duty’ look, with relaxed tees and slouchy urban style jackets and trousers. It is cheaper and more comfortable than Wang’s main collection. I love the zip-up hoodies and thin racer back tops - they dress down an outfit and are very snug.

Tibi silk outfits: another point to the outnet for their variety of Tibi clothes. Tibi is a New York based designer that focusses on bright colours and vibrant prints. I particularly love the lemon yellow carnival silk shorts, loose and soft for the summer, but with a vital injection of colour, they are now reduced to £82.50 from £165, but here.

Paul Smith ties: thanks to Liberty’s colourful flowery prints, it is now cool for guys to wear feminine patterns... and where better to adopt this look than Paul Smith, the eccentric menswear icon. Last season’s beauties can be found at many department stores as well as the P.S outlets, with some ties selling at half the original £75 pricetag. The perfect gift to give your man a little bit of flower power. Buy in store at Harvey Nichols.

Missoni for Havaianas flip-flops: always fancied yourself a striped piece of Missoni but never had the cash? Your luck might be about to change...Missoni have teamed up with the popular flip flop company Havaianas to create a few pairs of must have summer sandals in wacky techicoloured prints... I am desperate for a pair. There are not in the sale, but at £45-60 I doubt you’ll find Missoni anywhere else cheaper. Buy on Net-a-porter here.

Resist the temptation of designer all season so that you can reward yourself in the sales. I think these items and designers are worth investing in.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Taste of London Festival in Regent's Park

I have the intention of going to the Taste of London Festival every year, so was delighted when I was offered tickets for this year's extravaganza. Every summer Regent’s Park is transformed for four days into foodie heaven, acting as a showcase for the best of London restaurants and the finest British produce. This year forty restaurants set up makeshift stalls, selling three of four specially designed starter-sized dishes. Amongst these exhibitors, other food and drink companies were tempting crowds with their wares.

The Regent’s Park setting was sadly less idyllic this year thanks to the endless rain - instead of bouncing across the green lawn between stalls, visitors had to wade through metres of mud and sludge; it made the whole experience rather less romantic. After fighting through the hordes to buy your favoured food, you had to then find a sheltered place to eat it away from the rain!

In the cause of press research, I tried a large range of the dishes on offer. First we headed to a cluster of Michelin starred restaurants: at Maze we ate glazed veal shin with white onion puree and rocket pesto, interesting flavours but a bit sloppy - a slightly disappointing first taste of Ramsay’s famous restaurant. However next door, from York and Albany (Ramsay’s Camden eatery), the chargrilled lamb cutlets with caponata and salsa verde were tender, crispy, flavoursome and delicious.

Next I couldn’t resist visited the Opera Tavern stall - it was swarming with eager guests wanting to try the celebrated Iberico pork and foie gras burger, we got one to share and savoured every morsel, it is the best burger out there, though it cost a ridiculous £7, more than they sell it for in the restaurant!

The best savoury food we ate was probably the chicken satay sticks and sauce from Malaysia Kitchen, warmly spiced chargrilled chicken with the most deliciously sweet chunky peanut sauce. On the sweet side my absolute favourite was the scrumptious freshly made ice-cream from Gelupo, I sampled a few of their exotic flavours and, after much deliberation, decided the refreshing coconut was the best.

There were a few enticing rum stalls offering fresh cocktails - we tried a delicious version of the familiar Mojito from the Pyrat Rum stall, a tangy and sweet concoction made with lots of mint and premium Caribbean golden rum. Aside from the cocktails, I was invited into the VIP area and kindly offered free champagne and a refuge from the rain.

The Taste of London Festival is geared towards a middle income demographic, and is certainly not a cheap day out. On top of the £26 standard ticket for admission you will need several books of crowns if you want to eat anything decent. Freebies can scarcely be found, and even when they are, the portions are meagre! One book of 20 crowns costs £10 (so 1 crown = 50p) and most of the restaurant dishes cost 10-16 crowns, so you can imagine that a single book doesn’t last long. Though the food itself is of high quality, the whole experience was dampened for me not only by the weather but also by the extortionate cost. I couldn’t help feeling that Taste of London is really a glorified farmer’s market, but without marketplace prices.

Friday, 24 June 2011

'Lend me a Tenor' at The Geilgud Theatre

I am still not really sure what to make of ‘Lend me a Tenor’, the vintage farcical musical that has just opened in London’s West End. I went to the press night last week with an old school friend, both of us tired and sweaty after a long day’s work... we arrived to discover an audience dressed entirely in black tie - not a few eccentric oddballs - but everyone in ball gowns and bow ties. It was totally perplexing.

This audience, which I felt very un-part of, clapped at every opportunity, so much so that I began to feel I was amongst an enthusiastic cult group. The whole production is super camp and kitsch, but needs to be to make the humour work. The action is set at the Cleveland Opera House in 1934, and a production of Verdi’s Otello is in full swing. Tito Morelli, the star of the show fails to arrive on time for the rehearsal jeopardising the evening’s performance, sending the crew and cast into a panicked frenzy. Morelli eventually appears but is unable to perform after falling into a pill-induced deep sleep. The narrative only really gets going when the substitute tenor gets into costume, and the real tenor awakes, also in the Otello outfit, both claiming to be the genuine Tito Morelli.

It is a fun show, but unfortunately Brad Carroll’s music just isn’t good enough to keep the action interesting. Every song sounds the same, and even this reworked melody isn’t very memorable. One aria stood out however - the witty parody sung by stroppy singer Diana (the company’s Desdemona), an impressive collage of the most familiar opera divas: Tosca, Mimi and Carmen amongst others. Sophie-Louise Dann was zesty as Diana and gave a tremendous performance in this song particularly, throwing herself into the funny impersonations and still managing to sound in tune.

The audience loved it when Matthew Kelly strode on as the stressed company manager, Henry Saunders. Better known as a TV presentator, Kelly overdid it here, scowling and shouting so much it began to give me a headache. The unlikely hero, Max Garber is played by a very competent Damian Humbley. I thought he really excelled on the night, holding the cast together with a balanced and powerful performance.

The highlight for me in ‘Lend me a Tenor’ was the tap dancing waiters. Fast paced routines that were well executed by Nick Butcher and Ryan Pidgen on the night. I wished there was more dancing as it added another dimension to the otherwise rather samey show.

Lend me a Tenor continues until 19 November 2011.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Chicken Soup with Barley at The Royal Court

‘Chicken soup with Barley’ is a ferociously political play, a genre which the Royal Court Theatre seem to thrive off with their snappy sharp productions of controversial topics. This particular drama is set between in 1936 and 1956 - 20 years of great political unrest. We watch the affects of the clash between Communist and Socialists, as conflicting ideals threaten to tear apart a working class Jewish family.

‘Chicken soup with Barley’ is the first play from Arnold Wesker’s theatrical triptych. Dominic Cooke’s production is a stylish revival, so polished that harsh critic Michael Billington gave it a glittering five stars and pronounced it “flawless”. I enjoyed it, and could certainly notice its attributes though failed to really grasp the narrative due to my shameful lack of historical knowledge.

I have come to expect neat and impressive sets from the Royal Court, and here they didn't disappoint. Set and costume designer Ultz has created two mundane and yet fascinating dining room settings, from which the action flits in and out. Each room (one for each half) holds significant reminders of the families struggle and story, with a central emphasis on food and mealtimes, as the play’s title also suggests.

Samantha Spiro is tremendous as Sarah Kahn, the feisty Jewish mother desperate to hold her family together - the driving force throughout the play. Spiro gives a powerful performance and manages to age miraculously by almost twenty years between the two halves, with only a wig to assist her transformation. I was amazed by how human she appears, especially in the scenes between her and her incompetent husband, Harry Kahn (Danny Webb). Sarah is obsessed with making tea, in fact this action preoccupies her character throughout. A nice cup of tea seems to be her answer to any, and every problem. It is a tiny, insignificant motif that effectively ties the plays two halves together perfectly, giving some much needed continuity.

The cast was strong all round, each character with their own socialist opinion. Danny Webb is spectacular as the frustrating father and husband, particularly in the latter half when after two strokes he sits rotting away crippled in his chair, barely moving or muttering a word and yet always making his presence known. The enthusiast son, Ronnie Kahn, is played by a dashing Tom Rosenthal. He is inspiring with his upbeat optimism and romantic view of the crisis, until he returns home a few years later, aggressively confronting his mother after his complete loss of faith - an alarming and wonderfully commanding final scene.

‘Chicken soup with Barley’ continues until 9 July 2011, book here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Hoxton Hotel

The Hoxton Hotel is slick, cool and efficient on every level, catering to every need ensuring an easy and enjoyable stay. This hip budget hotel is located on Great Eastern Street in East London, and promises style and comfort without rip-off prices. It is the genius idea from Pret-a-Manger co-founder Sinclair Beecham, a savvy businessman who seems to know what hotel guests want from a night’s stay away from home.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and already the venue was buzzing - lively staff welcomed us in the friendly reception area that leads into the trendy Hoxton Grill and bar hang out; it reminded me instantly of New York. We were allocated room 521, arriving via the lift you walk down a luminous orange corridor to reach your number. Hanging on the doors are Pret breakfast bags – brown paper carriers where you can mark the time you would like your free Pret banana, orange juice and yoghurt delivered the next morning.

The room exceeded all my expectations - stylish and smart, a far cry from budget. Funky cushions adorned the bed and a useful material ‘I love Hoxton’ bag had kindly been left on the table for me, complete with an extremely handy mini Hoxton guide (which we used later that evening). I immediately felt very at home, with lovely gestures from hotel staff evident everywhere. Complimentary water and milk is left in the fridge, free WiFi use is unlimited and in the bathroom Aveda toiletries are left for your comfort, along with a big bar of Pears soap which you are encouraged to take home. The room was perfectly functional, and is clearly intended to be that way, but there is also a sprinkling of unique additions that make you feel that little bit special.

The chic bathrooms at the Hoxton are all shiny and swish, with deep red tiling and wonderfully large mirrors. Heavenly white fluffy towels hang from the rail. An elegantly designed spacious shower is the best feature though, this wonderfully refreshing power shower was perhaps the best I have ever tried.

The Hoxton Grill restaurant, though in the vicinity is not part of the hotel. After a quick passionfruit Daiquiri in the bar, we decided to venture further afield to try out one of the Vietnamese eateries for supper, which we found directions to on our hotel guide.

Hoxton is a great area, with quirky restaurants and bars galore and it was lovely to explore, but I was relieved to get back to our hotel room that night, and lie back on the plush bed. Through our large window there was a spectacular view of urban London that made me oddly nostalgic. Our room was quite hot so we opened the window and unfortunately with the fresh air came a variety of loud city noises, but once shut again the room was blissfully silent, and conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Next morning, after sleeping for a full ten hours, we woke to find our healthy PrĂȘt breakfast outside. With the little kettle and sachets of Lyons, I made some hot coffee and then enjoyed a lazy morning in bed.

The Hoxton Hotel gets it just right. Mr Beecham has cracked the formula for a great hotel and gives the guests exactly what they need and want, with an attention to detail on the things that matter, and a no fuss approach to everything else.

The nightly rate at the Hoxton varies from £49 – 199, with a limited number of £1 rooms available for the Hox Fan Club members. Business rooms and meeting areas are available at reasonable prices and come equipped with a larder of tasty snacks.

81 Great Eastern Street, EC2 (020-7550 1000,

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra at the ENO

I coincidentally bumped into a few friends while going to see 'Simon Boccanegra' at the ENO last week. During the interval my singer friend mentioned that although the production was enjoyable it was a shame that the setting and design was so modern. I thought back to the last few operas I had seen at the epic Colliseum and realised that most had had a contemporary set and vision. Despite these modernisations sometimes offering an intriguing alternative message, I realised just how much I missed the glorious costumes, magnificent stage sets and magical props of more conventional opera productions. Opera should transport you to another world - a euphoric experience totally removed from everyday life - and so watching a grey suited chorus sing Verdi on this night was a little disappointing, and reminded me too much of my day job in a smart real estate office. It is director Dmitri Tcherniakov who is to blame, a Russian creative who many had high hopes for after he stunned with his brilliant version of Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden last year.

The story of Simon Boccanegra is ridiculously complex, and after about 20 minutes I gave up trying to follow. The narrative is explained with frequent projections - words appear suspended on the black backdrop on stage. It is not dissimilar to a Harry Potter scene, and I thought it worked wonderfully well- at least it forces the audience to sit up and read, an immediate interaction with the performance.

I have never seen this Verdi masterpiece before, so was surprised by how quickly I connected with the music, a bold score that ENO Music Director Edward Gardner conducts with experience and elegance. Of the singers it was the men that really impressed me, baritone Bruno Caproni sung the title role with a warm rich tone, and Roland Wood was an imposing villain as Paolo Albiani. It did not come as a surprise when Brindley Sherratt amazed with his rendition as Fiesco. He gave an authoritive and confident performance that really stood out. The young and troubled Amelia was taken on by Rena Harms in her ENO debut. Harms looked the part with her striking long dark hair and innocent demeanour, but is underwhelming vocally, and weak in some arias.

I was pleased to see Simon Boccanegra for the first time, and found the orchestral music very powerful and moving. It is rare that I enjoy a score so much on the first listening. However as a production, Tcherniakov’s sloppy ideas didn’t translate well to stage which left me feeling rather dissatisfied.

Simon Boccanegra continues until 9 July, book here.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Green glitz and glamour is what it's all about at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where ‘Shrek the Musical’ is taking its first footsteps to success. The unlikely love story of the ugly ogre and sweet princess delighted audiences young and old when Dreamworks released the film animation in 2011, and has now been adapted as a stage show by David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). The theatre version is predictably rather camped up but nonetheless keeps the charm and appeal of the original story with hilarious songs, fabulous outfits, and a good sense of humour.

There is the usual dose of celebrity casting: Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona and ex-Eastenders man Nigel Harman playing Lord Farquaad. Nigel Lindsay takes on the large role of Shrek, stomping about the stage in a magically believable costume. His voice is a little weak, but he must be commended on managing to be funny and sympathetic despite wearing a ton of padding and make up. Holden is full of energy as the lovely Fiona, happily farting and burping along with Shrek in one of the best numbers, “I Think I Got You Beat”, but couldn’t quite muster the power required for some of the upper register singing.

Harman certainly surprised me as the pint sized Farquaard, looking at the cast list I wasn’t expecting much from him, and yet he is, in my opinion, the star of the night - an all singing and dancing, comically brilliant entertainer, performing on his knees throughout.

Vocally it is some of the lesser characters that reign. Landi Oshinowo is sensational as the Dragon, her powerful voice has the tone and authority to make any audience stop and listen. She fills the theatre with her solo song, “Forever”, projecting the big tune with confidence and personality. Of the smaller parts, it is Alice Fearn (Sugar Plum Fairy, Gingy) and Emma Lindars (Mama Ogre, Mama Bear) whose voices are most memorable, real talent can be seen here - they both hit all the notes comfortably and gloriously.

The dancing doesn’t disappoint either; choreographer Josh Prince has developed some funky modern routines that fit well into the narrative. A particularly persuasive tap dancing number with Princess Fiona and the rats is delightfully realised on stage, and some of the Lord Farquaad dances are tremendously well done, as well as being side-splittingly funny. The creative team have succeeded with the visuals, an evolving fairytale set and colourful costumes that look great up on stage. Then there’s the band, led by lively Alan Williams, they soar through Tesori's dazzling score faultlessly.

I’m still smiling thinking about Shrek the Musical. The final verdict? Exceeds all expectations, a fun night for all.

Shrek the Musical continues until 19 February 2011, book here.

Hot on the Highstreet Week 56

I fell in love with this necklace the instant I saw it advertised in the Sunday Times Style Magazine last weekend. A simple and classic gold chain, with a romantic outline of a star hanging delicately in the centre. Made from sterling silver plated in gold, it is 44 cm long, so that it sits prettily just in the right place on your neck. It is priced at £75.

The necklace is handmade in the Econe studio in Clerkenwell where the design team makes its own collections for shops and works on bespoke orders. The specialists here often make personal pieces and wedding rings to your specifications. They can create modern or vintage designs with white gold, yellow gold and platinum, diamonds, semi and precious stones. They listen to your ideas and requirements to bring your dream item to life.

The Econe website promotes and sells a wide range of independent designers' work, as well as its own jewellery. It is a great place to get an individual piece, that isn’t mass made and sold everywhere. The prices are fair and reflect the quality and design of the piece.

This star necklace reminds me of Rachel from Glee’s star obsession, and her similar star necklace that she wears all the time. Perhaps this will become a new cult item, just like the gold name necklaces after Carrie wore one in ‘Sex and the City’.

Visit the website here.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Brighton Fashion Graduates Show 2011

It’s one thing knowing what you ‘want to be when you grow up’ at the age of five, but eighteen, not so easy. Schooling finishes in a flurry, and suddenly it is time to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life... time to get on the never ending career ladder... the whole thing is terrifying, and of my school friends only two were really ready to embark on adult life and get started on their careers. One of these ambitious friends is Elena Crehan, a creative creature with fiery orange hair and a vitality for life that never ceases to astound me. Having just finished her fashion degree at Brighton, I was invited along to the graduate show to see the final collections and creations.

The show took place in a kooky venue in Angel, called Candid Arts. My friend and I instantly felt painfully out of place, surrounded by hip fashion students wearing outfits that in some cases barely resembled clothes, but instead a drape of material arranged effectively around their body. Our El was barely to be seen, darting all over the place organising the hoards of guests, models and press people. On entering we were greeted with a tall glass of Pimms, and then took our places in the buzzing press area, neighbours of the frantic photographers. Our position meant we were on the receiving end of the model’s piercing stares and glaring poses.

After a brief welcome and introduction the music pumped and the models began striding confidently towards us. Eighteen students were exhibiting, each with about six different looks – so about 108 entrances in 108 unique outfits. Each student’s collection seemed to have a theme, a certain thought that united each of the garments into a team. Along with the clothes many of the models were adorned with fabulous stick on eyebrows and eyelashes, accentuating an androgynous or quirky look.

I was instantly amazed by the sheer quantity each designer had produced, and the incredible attention to detail - obviously each garment had taken a painstaking amount of time to construct. For me, as a keen fashionista, but by no means an expert, I was fascinated and impressed with everyone’s work. Not one collection disappointed. There were a few pieces that I particularly liked, either for the reason that the clothing was so beautiful, an artwork in itself, or because I thought to myself ‘I would really like to wear that.’

First up was Sophia Messina who presented an interesting men’s collection. Experimenting with materials each model came out with unusual straw platform shoes. Rachel Brooks utilised the girl’s slim line figures with slinky long trousers and a fabulously droopy hat, that I would love to borrow for holidays in the sun. I adored Lucy Fisher’s passionately red series, tent-like sporty hooded jackets paired with bright white chunky trainers. Adele Ahrens showed off a very wearable collection of bright floaty tops and a stunning full length gown. John Holt’s gold jumper caused quite a stir, a fluffy sparkling top that he modelled himself on the catwalk!

Eventually it was time for El’s showcase, an arresting collection of texture crazed garments, cleverly named ‘Do You Think Shesaurus?!’ In describing her spring/summer capsule collection El said: “The hand worked Stegasaur pleating technique has been used obsessively throughout to create a geometric silhouette while remaining true to original research in Mexican dolls, corn dolly’s and the proportions of children’s wear as well remaining fresh and above all things fun!”

I particularly loved the potato printed legwear - black Miro-esque shapes mark the white material to create an intricate and funky pattern. All of it was breathtaking and could easily be mistaken for the work of a fully established designer.

I was sad when it was all over, the swarm of models and designers all clapping their way round the catwalk circuit, displaying for one last time the magical designs that had fully occupied these talented graduates for so long. I left knowing there were certainly a few names to watch from the Brighton class of 2011.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Chris Kenny at England & Co Gallery

It is tricky writing about your own father’s work, to avoid bias and try to be objective. My dad has his studio at the bottom of our garden, and so I am always very aware of the presence of his work, but rarely do I get to see pieces before they are exhibited in their finished state.

A few days ago, friends, family and art enthusiasts gathered at England & Co Gallery on Westbourne Grove for the private view of Chris Kenny’s most recent work. It is always intriguing to watch an artist’s work evolve, and this show illustrates Kenny’s progression perhaps more than ever before.

He studied Art History at the prestigious Courtauld Institute, and started his creative career very much as a painter, with a symbolic interest in chairs and trees, and patterns and symmetry in natural things. His work began to move into more museological territory and soon he was carefully constructing boxes of precisely selected and arranged things. Seemingly random items that Kenny recognised a special quality in, artifacts to which Kenny attached labels according to his imaginative associations.

In the current show pieces of this kind predominate, stunning clean white boxes house swarms of cut out faces from photographs, or phrases from books, or segments of maps - things plucked from their familiar environment and made into something new. A collection of dissections, sentences with lost meanings and portraits of forgotten people are given a new lease of life in Kenny’s unusual creations. Clean measured pictures that are mesmerising aesthetically but also hold so many strands of meaning. The story boxes are a perfect example of this, odd phrases are assembled in a brilliantly funny order to form a short narrative, every time you look you can discover something new, visual or intellectual. And that’s the point, you can take away from it what you like, a new perspective, a funny anecdote, a quote full of wisdom, or just the pleasure of looking at something so still and beautiful.

Interestingly, Kenny begins to hark back to his painting days with a group of new works, of cut bright paper, out of which a statement is cut. They are still carefully considered but have a more painterly quality, a striking balance of colour and design. They are gloriously refreshing, and would add a touch of wacky beauty to any room. Declarations read “Hazard” or “Are You Awake?” - they are stylish, and, dare I say it, even a little bit pop-arty.

And then there are the sheds, adorable little buildings constructed from found wood, each with its own character and charm. Again letters are cut out, incisions reveal a quote “Nulla in Mundo Pax” (There is no peace in this world), but it seems there is peace in the refuge of these tiny shelters. They sit neat in line across the back wall of the gallery, immaculately hung - an unforgettable presence in the exhibition.

This collection of Chris Kenny’s works is more daring, and more thrilling than has been seen previously. With Kenny’s unique pieces increasingly being shipped off to be exhibited internationally, this is a rare opportunity to see his newest collection in its full glory. A display that will simultaneously sooth and scream at you.

Exhibition continues until 9 July, see more information here.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Hotel Review: MalMaison London, Clerkenwell

Last weekend was hideously grey and rainy in London so it was a welcome relief to arrive as a guest at the Malmaison hotel. Situated near Smithfields market in a leafy corner of Clerkenwell, amongst the quaint pubs and bars, this boutique hotel is just two minutes walk from Barbican and Farringdon stations.

The charming Victorian red brick facade of the Malmaison stood out even through the drizzle with an alluring but understated elegance. The reception area was alarmingly quiet, decorated luxuriously with dark velvet, an interesting contrast to the lighter exterior. We were quickly and efficiently checked in and taken to our allocated room.

Our room was gloriously light, large windows overlooking the street, a chaise longue adding a discreet sophistication. Clean, spacious and very comfortable, with all the necessities and more: a large plasma screen TV, well equipped mini bar, generous toiletries, and a huge cosy bed. After a busy weekend I was happy to slump down and watch ‘Stuart Little’ which happened to be on TV!

At 7pm we wandered down to the Brasserie to have a cocktail before supper. Low moody lighting offers a calm ambience and it would be an easy place to socialise. A smiling waiter immediately approached us with complimentary salty pistachios, and olives to nibble while we chose our cocktails from the vast list. I wouldn’t expect expert mixologists at a hotel, but Malmaison has it covered, a delicious and unique menu of concoctions, it was impossible to choose just one. Eventually we decided on Bajan Mojito (Bacardi, passoa, vanilla gomme, fresh passion fruit, lime juice and mint leaves) and Garden of Eden (bloom gin, lychee liqueur, elderflower cordial, apple juice and cucumber) - both were divine, carefully mixed flavours to create refreshing, appetizing drinks.

The restaurant at Malmaison London is modern and inviting, we opted for one of the better lit tables as I prefer to eat in brighter lighting. The dinner menu, though not very adventurous, has a varied choice of British dishes, including a particularly enticing ‘Grill’ section. All the meat here is supplied by Donald Russell - grass fed and naturally reared beef. Impressed by the standards we chose the Mal Burger and the 35 day old Rump Steak frites, as our mains.

Fresh warm bread was delivered to our table, with a bottle of the house white. We were then promptly brought our starters: Pea, mint and goat’s cheese salad, and an Asparagus salad. Both were neatly presented and made with the freshest ingredients. My pea salad felt healthy and was an ideal choice before my rich and filling main. The burger was fantastic, every component cooked to perfection and full of flavour. I am a very picky chip eater and am pleased to report that these too were far above average - thin, crispy and lightly salted, I couldn’t help greedily finishing them off. Every sauce and relish you could ever desire was delivered to us without request from our very thoughtful waiter. Pudding came too soon, and I only managed to taste a mouthful of each of the plates we’d ordered: Malmaison Vanilla Creme Brulee and Rhubarb and Ginger Parfait. The parfait married tart and sweet, a lovely juxtaposition of tastes; but it was the brulee that really excelled, a lusciously creamy dessert tinged with real vanilla and accompanied by the most perfect warm madeleine cake. We declined the kind offer of coffee, and stumbled upstairs to rest after the feast. It was lovely to come back to our homely room. I used the complimentary Arron Aromatics bath oil to run myself a lavish bubbly bath before slipping into a deep sleep in the lovely bed.

After a refreshing night’s rest and a power shower we went back down to the Brasserie, but not before grabbing the free Telegraph newspaper left outside our door. Breakfast was perhaps the highlight of the stay for me: an array of delicious fresh pastries, fruit, yoghurt, cereal, everything you could ever wish for, along with a menu of smartly designed hot breakfasts. I couldn’t resist indulging (despite still feeling rather full from supper the night before!) I noticed that many businessmen (not staying in the hotel) were also breakfasting here, obviously the reputation of the Brasserie alone is growing, and rightly so. I’d certainly prefer this banquet over the Pret down the road.

Speaking to a friendly member of the staff about our stay, we discussed the other Malmaison venues, he explained that each hotel very much has its own character...for instance the Oxford Mal is an 'enchanting' old converted prison and the Belfast branch used to be a seed warehouse. The London hotel boasts its own character and appeal - ideal for those staying in the city who wish to avoid the chaotic rush and rip off prices of Central London, and instead relax in a luxurious haven.

Malmaison, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AH (020 7012 3700;

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Butley at The Duchess Theatre

English actor Dominic West is best known for his role in HBO series The Wire, in which he played detective Jimmy McNulty from 2002 to 2008. He returns to the London stage to take on the title role in Simon Gray’s hilarious play ‘Butley’. Celebrity actors and critics turned up to support the play on press night last week.

The play takes place on a single day; University professor Ben Butley is having a tough time, his personal and professional lives are collapsing simultaneously. He is suffering the final breakdown of his marriage, while his friendship with best friend Joey is also on the rocks. At work he is accused of poaching a student from another lecturer, and is hassled constantly by his melodramatic colleagues. Butley deals with his woes by annoying his friends as much as possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lindsay Posner’s production of this humorous piece. Effective direction enables the actors to make the most of Gray’s hilarious script. The action is set in a campus office, dusty books balancing precariously on the bookselves, with Ben’s desk and surrounding floor littered with the day’s debris - a visual depiction of the turmoil wrecking Ben’s life.

Dominic West gives a witty and intelligent portrayal of the play’s selfish protagonist. Butley is a charismatic and clever man, but is also sulky and solitary in a juvenile way that reminded me of Hugh Laurie as Dr House (another British actor in a successful American show). Butley seems overtly interested in his gay friend’s relationship, so much so that it suggests he may be bi-sexual, though this remains ambiguous. He is totally preoccupied with rhyming verse and regularly pesters those around him with relentlessly silly rhetoric. It is wonderful to watch West tackle this fast paced dialogue with such ease and panache.

The rest of the cast support West well, despite having rather small roles by comparison, Martin Hutson is the pathetically timid Joey and Paul McGann his unbearably petty Yorkshire bred lover, Reg Nuttall. I enjoyed Emma Hiddleston as wide eyed student Miss Heasman, she takes on the role of this overly sensitive student, innocent and unaware as Butley bullies her.

Simon Gray wrote Butley forty years ago and yet in this well adjusted and amusing production I felt it was undated and fresh as ever.

Butley continues until 27 August, book here.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 55

No-one believed she could do it when Lily Allen opened her very own vintage boutique, ‘Lucy in Disguise’ with half sister Sarah Owen. Eight months later, not only is the shop a resounding triumph but the sisters are now launching their debut 18-piece fashion range, a collection of unique vintage style garments.

The new capsule collection is named ‘Treasure Chest’ and features outfits from different eras including Sixties influenced maxi dresses, Seventies jumpsuits and an Eighties ra-ra skirt. I particularly like the long floaty floral dresses and the fun nautical swimsuit. It seems Lily is on a roll – she says the pair are currently working on their fourth collection... she has certainly come a long way since her early pop star hi-top trainers and prom dress days. She chose Delphine Manivet to design her wedding dress.

I’ve visited Lucy in Disguise and completely adore the store. Rails line the walls dripping with the most divine vintage finds. Downstairs there is a vodka bar, a VIP area and a wonderful little retro hair salon and WAH nails area, what more could you need? So even if you can’t afford the perfectly picked vintage gems or the beautiful new range pieces, it is worth going to see the shop and get your nails done.

The collection is available at Harvey Nichols and at Lucy in Disguise from 6 June, with prices starting at £140.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Macbeth at The Royal Opera House

Visits to the Royal Opera House and the ENO in one day is impressive, even for me! When I was offered a ticket to the final Macbeth rehearsal at ROH I had to accept. Going along to Covent Garden at 11am felt a little strange, especially seeing the audience turning up in casual weekend attire, a far cry from the usual ball gowns and pearls.

Once in the auditorium, the rehearsal announcement came loud and clear through the speakers: "this is a working rehearsal, there may be stops, and some singers may mark their part". Of course they have to say this but in fact the performance ran through, faultless and perfected, even the final bows were neat and tidy. To my knowledge the singers were singing full voice, they certainly didn't appear to be holding back. In fact quite the opposite, they were powerful and resonant, some of the best vocal bravado I've heard here for a while.

In my final year at university I was lucky enough to study 'Verdi and Shakespeare,' a course that focused on his three Shakespearean operas. Macbeth was the first, written in 1847 and revised in 1865. This was a period of great productivity in Verdi's life; even so the great composer recognised its worth, "Macbeth I prize above all my other operas".

The curtain lifts to reveal a swarm of menacing witches, they are dressed in striking red and black costumes that look very Japanese inspired. The chorus is gigantic, they spit out the first number, a sinister mass. I immediately noticed Anthony Ward’s bold set, a strong structure that traps the singers very effectively on stage. The soloists in this cast are exceptional, Simon Keenlyside’s clear baritone voice brings warmth to the role of Macbeth, and Liudmyla Monastyrska sings the highly virtuosic part of Lady Macbeth with confidence and true musicianship. Brilliant alone on stage, she fills the theatre with her big voice, but also works extremely well with Keenlyside, a perfectly possessed duo.

The orchestra of the Royal Opera House are masterful as ever, conducted by the strong handed Antonio Pappano, who I think brings a unique flair to this extraordinary score. Pappano is particularly sensitive to the more intense moments of the opera, for instance Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene that is very intimate and moving.

I was fully engaged throughout despite the long running time of three hours. Every aspect of Phyllida Lloyd’s production is brilliantly realised to produce a stunning five star rendition of this wonderfully dark masterpiece.

Macbeth continues until Saturday 18th June, book here.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Beauty and the Beast in Barnsley

A weekend out of town can be very soothing for a manic Londoner like me, so when I was invited to go up north to see a friend starring in Beauty and the Beast at the Barnsley Lamproom Theatre, I grabbed the opportunity. Five of us squeezed in the tiniest of cars, buzzing up the motorway to the beat of latest fave band Everything Everything.

We arrived in good time, 5.25 for a 7.15 start, and wanting to find a suitable bouquet for our performing friend, we went to suss out Barnsley’s best flower boutiques. Turns out there are none, and any shops we did find were shut. I kind woman directed us to Morrisons, where we spent a good twenty minutes picking out the least tacky bunch.

Battling with the ferocious wind, we walked through the town to the theatre. After stopping for a quick platter of snacks, we took our seats. We all studied music together at university so it felt familiar sitting waiting to watch a friend sing. The lights dimmed and a musky smoke began laboriously puffing across the stage.

Hannah came on, auburn hair glowing and dressed in a sweet blue dress, not dissimilar to a John Lewis school uniform, the prettiest Belle in Barnsley. I felt instantly at ease watching her effortlessly perform the familiar Disney melodies but with a renewed charm to the character that far surpassed the animation. To our left a single red rose sat, brooding in its own melancholy. Gradually as the night went on the petals fell, with perfectly ridiculous comic timing much to the audience’s delight. The chorus pranced about, everyone just seemed pleased to be taking part. It wasn’t just Hannah we were there to watch, this production was quite a family affair... her enviously sophisticated mum as the wardrobe and her hunky cousin as the handsome villain, Gaston. Clearly theatrical talent is something this family don’t lack!

A buffet greeted the hungry cast members and guests, exhausted from the day’s events we all left to drive back to Hannah’s house, our gorgeous accommodation for the night. After some much needed gossip we retired to bed, dreaming of talking clocks and dancing candlesticks.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Pygmalion at The Garrick Theatre

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw is rather overshadowed by its musical offspring, ‘My Fair Lady,’ that uses the same endearing story with the addition of toe tapping tunes. Nonetheless this classic ‘rags to riches’ tale of young Eliza Doolittle still delights audiences and the Garrick Theatre was full to the brim when I went along last week.

Philip Prowse’s production started life at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year, before transferring to London in May. I had heard negative rumours about the show, so prepared myself for disappointment. As a whole the play feels oddly disjointed, from a lengthy opening speech from Eliza as the uncouth flower seller to a seemingly instant transformation to an eloquent upright lady. I missed the tiresome lessons reciting ‘the rain in Spain’ and feel the absence of this struggle leaves the narrative rather inadequate.

The familiar role of Eliza is bravely taken on by ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ star Kara Tointon, who uses her movement training to her advantage, capturing the crumpled street-perching girl and then the tall reformed woman both perfectly. She immediately reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, she seems to be channelling the famous actress’s portrayal, and also has a similar doll like beauty.

I was less impressed with Rupert Everett, who stumbles precariously on his lines throughout the evening. I have always liked Everett but feel he doesn’t bring enough of his unique flair to the character - Henry Higgins is a man who oozes charisma and unfortunately Everett just doesn’t deliver. There is some sterling work from the smaller roles though, a composed Diana Rigg presents a wonderful Mrs Higgins and Michael Feast is hilariously rowdy as Alfred Doolittle.

There are some poignant moments in this production of Pygmalion thanks to Tointon’s thoughtful depiction, but on the whole I feel it lacks depth and at times even verges on bland, most of all I missed the songs.

Continues until 3 September, 2011. Book here.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Mount Street May Fayre party

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I turned up at The Mount Street Party a few nights ago. I had been sent the invitation from a friend and was mostly just excited about the prospect of a free glass of fizz. After undergoing intensive renovation this fashionable London shopping street is re-open for business and so to celebrate, the luxurious boutiques threw a party.

Mayfair, London’s smartest district, originally received its name from the annual two week May Fayre held in Shepherds Bush market from 1686 until it was banned for being too rowdy and disruptive. 325 years later Mount Street is once again remembering this historic occasion, with celebrations over the whole month of May. The street is home to many Flagship designer stores- Marc Jacobs, Christian Louboutin, Lanvin and Balenciaga, Azzaro and Stephen Webster to name a few.

My office is located just a few minutes walk away so it was easy to pop along after work last week, fitting it in just before a theatre excursion. It was the perfect day for a party, blazing sun and a gentle breeze. An awards ceremony had just finished round the corner so celebrities were running riot in the local posh drinking houses. Once in the midst of the events it was difficult to choose where to go first, smiling faces greeting me outside every shop, each offering an exciting cocktail or canapé. Entertainers and adorned women on stilts coloured the street with their bright costumes, and in one corner there were musicians and dancers.

I was ushered into an intriguing shop, pungent with the smell of white spirit in the air and men working furiously inside. This brilliantly light space is soon to be a new concept gallery, called Shizaru. They will exhibit fabulously unique pieces, some traditional antique artefacts, other highly inventive new works and sculptures. Scattered around were several wonderful pieces, a giant swirling bowl of clear liquid particularly caught my eye. Before dashing off I needed to eat something, so we wandered around the other shops picking up barbequeued sausages from Allens (the high end meat shop visited by Apprentice contestants), a glass of fresh lemonade from The Connaught and ice creams from the lovely lady outside Louboutin. Champagne was flowing and I was lucky enough to get one of the most deliciously fragrant glasses of Pimms I have ever tasted from the famous Scott’s bar and restaurant.

Just before running to the theatre we popped into Sautter Cigar shop to look at the collection, and munch on their superior nibbles. Men outside were suited and booted in the finest outfits while puffing away on their fat cigars. This was the loveliest of May Fayres, which is what you would expect from the exclusive Mayfair road - Mount Street.