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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Beady Eye at The Royal Albert Hall


The Royal Albert Hall was filled for the night with uncanny Liam Gallagher look-a-likes, or at least they all had the same characteristic floppy hairstyle, classic green parkas, and epic sideburns... Hilarious really, you'd think these men would have grown out of imitating their idols. After the feud of brothers Liam and Noel left hit band Oasis no more, both have been employing their musical talents elsewhere; for Liam this has led to the birth of Beady Eye. In 2009, along with two other core Oasis members, this new incarnation began writing and recording.

This month, in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, Beady Eye performed in London. I went along with my brother, who is a devoted fan of the band. We managed to park blissfully close to the hall, and for free. Taking our seats in the front row of the stalls, we had such a brilliant view of the stage, it didn't even matter that I'd forgotten my glasses. Miles Kane came on at 8ish as the eager supporting act. By the way, he too sports the Liam haircut, framing his sweet babyface. His band have just completed their first album together, 'Colour of the Trap,' and gave us an energetic and very loud taster. They have a good vibe, and despite the songs being quite samey, there were some toe-tapping melodies. Miles certainly put his all into the performance, singing joyfully and speaking with a modest charm.

Beady Eye eventually came on, after lots, and lots of tedious waiting around. The obsessed fans went mad as their idol, Liam walked onto the stage, I wondered if the hordes had come for the music, or just to see the man behind it. Not letting us forget for a second about his battle with his elder brother, Liam screamed “This aint no fookin’ Noel Gallagher gig”. I found out later that Noel had played at this very gig a year ago, and after hearing his brother’s name chanted beforehand Liam was keen to put things straight. Beady Eye seemed excited to be performing for us and played a full set from their recent album. I enjoyed the music more than I thought I would, and will admit this Gallagher boy has a certain magnetism. The relationship between crowd and performer was ecstatic and made the evening exciting. ‘The Roller’, Beady Eye’s first official single was a jubilant favourite, and the audience sang along as if it was a familiar anthem. Liam was on good form, reaching the top notes with impressive ease and even responding to a flying lime wedge in his face with mature grace.

It is staggering how multi-purpose this great hall is, to sit enjoying such a wild concert when my previous visit had been for the smart circus extravaganza Cirque du Soleil is amazing. It is perhaps the most versatile venue in the capital. I enjoyed getting to know the music of Beady Eye, though could have done without the beer being flung about the stadium, I left with my newly washed hair all sticky and wet.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Goat Race at Spitalfields Farm




While the rest of London were gathering for the renowned Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race, a group of us decided to try the quirky Goat Race alternative, taking place at Spitalfields City Farm. Located just off Brick Lane, the area boasts numerous exotic food stalls; we grabbed a fragrant curry before heading to the mini farm. The place was filled with Shoreditch trendsetters, a little nauseating in their masses. Trust East London to come up with an unconventional substitute to the traditional boating event!


The Goat Race, now in its third year, cost £4 entry. Inside there were stands selling homemade cakes, cherry wine and other interesting treats, as well as cocktail and beer areas, an art and craft tent and of course an opportunity to coo at the rest of the animals who live on the farm. We wandered around, enjoying the fresh air and jolly spirit. At 4 o’clock the crowds formed around a miniature assault course, for the stoat race! The terrified looking creatures were actually weasels but named stoats to rhyme appropriately for the occasion. The poor little things scurried through the tunnels obviously confused by the glaring audience. Oxford (the white larger animal) was the clear winner, while Cambridge went a little mad and started reversing before completing the course.


With the Goat Race not taking off till 5, there was time to escape to Brick Lane for a coffee. We jumped on Boris Bikes - it was my first time on one and I enjoyed it immensely; it felt good to be part of the blue bike gang. Returning just before 5 there was sadly no time for placing bets on the goats, instead we parked ourselves in a good spot towards the finish line. It was all over in a flash despite both goats (Bramble as Cambridge and Bently representing Oxford) moving with little haste or urgency. At one point Bently even had to be nudged along with a bribing bucket of food.


And while Oxford University comfortably won on the River Thames, it was a quite different battle at Spitalfields Farm. Smaller and niftier Bramble gained an early lead, and went on to win the rosette for Cambridge.

Susan Hiller at Tate Britain



Susan Hiller likes to imagine and explore things most of us prefer not to think about. She collects seemingly insignificant materials (like postcards or wallpaper) and uses these to uncover facts about the subconscious and unknown, encouraging the viewer to take part in the process. Her evocative work has understandably had an important influence on younger generations of artists.

This exhibition at Tate Britain is Hiller’s largest show yet. I really appreciated the clear layout of the work. Exhibitions of this nature are often left unattractively to speak for themselves but these experiments are presented so beautifully that a much deeper interpretation is available to the viewer. What first may appear random, on closer examination is fascinating. ‘Dream Mapping’ shows the results of an investigation conducted by Hiller in 1974. She arranged for a group of people to sleep outside in ‘fairy rings’ (circles formed by mushrooms considered to be the entrances to Fairy-land). Each night they were required to note down their dreams in diagrams or text. I am a very erratic sleeper, and I regularly have unforgettable or confusing dreams so to read these results was enthralling.

‘Magic Lantern’ explores the body’s instinctive reaction to colour. A small dark room shows moving bright coloured circles, the headphones play horrific wailing sounds that make you feel like you are going mad. The vocal improvisations are interspersed with snippets of recorded sounds from empty rooms further demonstrating Hiller’s obsession with the paranormal.

‘An Entertainment’ is a projection of screaming Punch and Judy shows and another example of technology overload. The work was devised in 1990 and is a film collage of different shows from all over Britain. Hiller hopes to highlight the forgotten mythologies embedded in theatrical tradition. The synchronised screens blaze at each other - it is easy to get completely lost in the blurred images and loud abstract soundtrack.

I found the final rooms most haunting. ‘Witness’ is a terrifying, surreal installation with hundreds of little speakers hanging down from the ceiling each transmitting one person’s ghost story. They describe encounters with UFO’s, sightings, strange irregularities and other peculiar experiences. We stood in the middle of the shadowy room overwhelmed by the eerie atmosphere, there is a constant chatter of voices all in different languages. The voices gradually calmed to leave just one woman’s solitary voice speaking... it is unexpected and strange and sends a sharp shiver down your spine. I thought the whole idea was ingeniously inventive and affecting.

Continues until 15 May 2011, book here.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Mary Broome at The Orange Tree Theatre


‘Mary Broome', written by Allan Monkhouse in the early part of the 20th Century, is a study of relationships: between servant and wealthy employer and secondly between parents and their children. Monkhouse enjoys muddling these divisions up when the younger son in the prosperous Timbrall family is found to have landed the family’s housemaid, Mary Broome, in a spot of trouble.

I faintly remember my last visit to the Orange Tree Theatre, I can’t have been older than twelve and was there on a school trip; the theatre seemed much bigger back then. It is actually a boutique venue sitting in the centre of lovely Richmond, just two minutes walk from the train station. Before seeing the play we stopped into Carluccio’s next door to scoff a quick bowl of pasta, sustenance for the evening’s entertainment.

We all squeezed onto the snug press benches: to say it was cosy would be an understatement. Set designer Sam Dowson has created an atmospheric sitting room, and used very effectively the small space he has to work with. Strangely, a piece of furniture is placed in the middle of each side of the square stage restricting one's view, this may be intentional in order to make the audience feel they are peeking into the family drama.

Katie McGuinness is reserved and affecting as the meek maid Mary Broome; she puts on a perfect Pennine accent which makes her stand out from the rest of the characters brilliantly. She never gives too much away, keeping her thoughts coiled in and presenting a plain, rather dumb front. Her shy and hesistant portrayal is sometimes painful to watch.

Jack Farthing made me laugh as overtly camp and frivolous Leonard Timbrell, who is forced to marry Mary by his stern father after getting her pregnant. He is witty and sharp and makes fabulous use of Monkhouse’s fast paced script. Michael Lumsden commands the stage with his bellowing rendition of Mr Edward Timbrell ordering everyone about in a nasty condescending tone. In fact the whole cast is strong and works well as a team, there are no dud performances.

It is a convincing production for the Orange Tree Theatre, though after seeing similar plays such as ‘When we are Married’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’, I’m afraid I didn’t feel as excited watching this smaller scale farce.

Continues until 23 April, book here.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 44 - Guts for Garters


As I sat on a crowded Northern line carriage, suffering from agonising toothache, I began to wonder if this post-work traipse across London would be worth the effort. I had no idea then that I would be visiting an exquisite, unique and entirely unforgettable treasure trove, packed full of long forsaken goodies and exciting inventions.

This spring, more precisely two weeks ago, ‘Guts for Garters’ launched their eccentric idea on the world, a new concept store that houses all manner of creativity. The two founders, Rachel Chudley and Cassie Beadle, both recently graduated from the prestigious Courtauld Institute, felt they had something new and different to offer to the art world, an imaginative space for desirable and more importantly accessible art and design, quite simply a museum of everything and anything.

The exterior is white and minimal quite the opposite of the magical, colourful and enchanting interior. This is no jumble sale, though on first glance the eclectic collection looked a little similar. It is made up of carefully sourced vintage finds – clothes, jewellery, books, and other strange and wonderful objects that fall within ‘Guts for Garters’ first theme: ‘The Royal We’. Here you will find ultra collectable designer clothes that mimic the Queen’s elaborate style hanging on racks looking delicious. Creations from upcoming artists grace every inch of wall: strange pictures, crafty crockery, and daring jewellery, many pieces specially commissioned for this project. Each item is unique, and with some pieces costing as little as £20, this is affordable art at its most inventive.

Having always wanted a costume department for a wardrobe I was utterly delighted with the array... wishing every bit of it was mine. Sticking dutifully to my pre-New York buying ban I resisted purchasing anything, though I did treat myself to one of the new £3 catalogues to entertain me on the tube home. I was so impressed with the incredible attention to detail and thought that these two illustrious girls have put into this mission, showing a real passion, and immense effort. Among my favourites of the gems (and there are honestly too many to list) were the fabulously macabre bone rings, carved from deer antlers. Starting at £50 these beauties looked brilliant on, striking and mad, but strangely pretty too. Also some wildly exquisite chunky bracelets by a genius artist called Bert Clayton.

Every couple of months G4G will be staging a new theme, with ‘Surreal Women’ up next. There is a certain spirit of rebellion to this current exhibition, ‘The Royal We,’ as there always is when joking about the monarchy, but also an air of undeniable elegance and charm. This subject was incidentally decided long before Kate and Wills made the announcement.

I found my heaven in Guts for Garters, a beacon of originality that lights up Camden with its hip, distinctive vibe. Please don’t take my word for it, this is a whole world of delights that you must see with your own eyes.

Visit website here.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Watercolour at Tate Britain


I have been excited about seeing the Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain since it opened a month or so ago. The selection brings together the work of many different artists, with only the theme of medium to unite them. One may think of watercolour as a narrow medium but this show truly illustrates otherwise. Depicting a huge range of subject matter we can see how it can be used in different ways to create an astonishing variety of affects.

The work is displayed in a series of rooms under very loose themes, beginning with a section of early British paintings. Here there are some awe inspiringly detailed pictures by masters like Anthony Van Dyck and John Dunstall. I loved the cute little jewellery pendants in this room – tiny watercolour portraits on vellum or ivory, framed and sometimes surrounded by delicate pearls or diamonds. They are so beautiful and show a real insight into the lucky owner’s life.

Watercolour is a very intimate art, susceptible to disaster: a drop of water ruining a masterpiece or an hour of sunlight fading the painted image. It is frequently employed for studies prior to a final composition, and for experimenting and documenting. Paintings done with gouache, a creamier opaque kind of water-based paint, are included occasionally in this show for which I was grateful - I personally love the affects. One of the later rooms, ‘Exploring the medium,’ gives a deeper analysis of the techniques and uses of watercolour. Here you can see examples of raw pigments and the changes to them when diluted and dispersed by water.

My favourite works in this exhibition are those by the dreaming Romantics William Blake, Victor Hugo and Samuel Palmer. Their intense mythical paintings show inner visions, amazing atmospheres and extreme imagination. The translucent quality of watercolour is ideal for these dreamlike images and their mood really left an impression on me.

In my opinion the most wonderful thing about watercolour is its versatility, it can be easily transported, taken around with you to use whenever you desire. This means otherwise difficult painting conditions are made possible, hence watercolour became the medium used most often in war. It is a practical medium for extreme conditions.

This is a rare chance to view such a wealth of quiet masterpieces in the same place, and is well worth a visit.

Continues until 21 August 2011, book here.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Knot of the Heart at The Almeida Theatre


The Knot of the Heart makes its world premiere this season at the Almeida Theatre on Upper Street, Islington. A dark, emotionally charged new play by David Eldridge that carries out a full investigation of addiction, its causes and devastating effects.

We watch as pretty, successful and well off Lucy falls into a horrific drug dependency, dragging down her family too as they desperately try to help. Gradually as she is suffocated by her mother’s affection, it becomes clear how dangerous devotion can be. The title comes from the Sanskrit phrase, ‘hRRidaya-granthi’ which translates as ‘the knot of the heart’, it is a bind that must be broken in order for self knowledge to take place.

Lisa Dillon is thrilling as the play’s lead, Lucy, unfalteringly she controls the action and is on stage almost constantly. This is a ambitious vehicle for a leading actress and she rises to the challenge; with all the mood changes it is a character that must be physically and emotionally exhausting to play. Eldridge and Dillon met years prior to this play’s realisation, when Dillon had mentioned her desire to play a leading role and “get to go on a journey like the boys get to go on,” and so the part of Lucy was written for her, a character not defined by her relationship to a man.

It is a long play, perhaps too long, that spirals way out of control before it is reined in again. In the first half we watch the decline, a messy business with needles, blades, blood, swearing, hospital beds and death, all the worst consequences of a drug addiction. I would not say I found it enjoyable to watch, it was well acted but unpleasant to witness. I didn’t feel like there was anything new being said, it was like a news report, bare facts and horrible images.

The second half brings some development: a sub story, underlying currents and some drama and motivation. The script is more fluent here too, and the actresses certainly seem to handle it better. Margot Leicester excels as the loving mother, snobbish and stupid, she will do anything to help her daughter out of this agonising habit. Abigail Cruttenden plays the cruel curt older sister very convincingly. Kieran Bew is brilliant as ‘The Men,’ covering a range of diverse male roles throughout the play including an aggressive drug dealer, a camp nurse and even a South African gent right at the end. He displays impressive versatility and consistency.

The conclusion feels a little unconvincing, as Lucy suddenly travels across the world and finds instant contentment, but as a whole ‘The Knot of the Heart’ is a poignant piece. It is painfully gripping and educational about the frightening, but very real world of addiction.

Continues until Saturday 30 April, book here.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

DINNER by Heston - Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park





Dinner is a particularly peculiar name for a restaurant, and has caused some confusion for Heston Blumenthal’s newest eatery: “I’m having lunch at Dinner” sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? The word has always traditionally been used in Britain for the main meal of the day, which over the years has had varied timing. Despite now being an evening occasion, it originally took place in the middle of the day, as the largest meal. Of course in some parts of the country it still means lunch, which I soon discovered when I lived with five northerners at university!

I was one of the privileged few to be offered a table for Dinner, going along with my favourite foodie entourage for lunch last week. The four of us had a spectacular table overlooking Hyde Park; we watched uniformed men riding by on horseback, and were also next to the bustling kitchen where all the magical action happens. Dashing straight from work, conveniently just round the corner, I barely had time to change, but was pleased to be finally taking my Wolford ‘hero’ tights out – I wanted to wear something exceptional for this extraordinary meal.

Located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, the surroundings are luxuriously grand. The restaurant is spacious and airy with simple decor, jelly mould-like white lights sit strangely on the wall, looking rather like Lady Gaga’s stage props. The room is pleasantly light and bright, which I always appreciate when dining.

The a la carte menu sits neatly at each person’s place, though the set lunch list was soon brought along to us with the more reasonable selection. Dinner has quickly become known for a few extra special dishes, the meat fruit starter - an immaculately sculpted mandarin (like the hotel name) and chicken liver parfait served with deliciously crunchy grilled bread. My grandad ordered this and it was a sensation, Heston’s food science and craftsmanship at its very best. The other raved about dish is the tipsy cake, a pudding dating back to 1810 made with spit roast pineapple, that you can see rotating temptingly in the kitchen. This dessert must be ordered at the start of the meal as it takes 35 minutes to make and perfect, I ordered it and had high expectations. I was not disappointed, it was undeniably yummy and surprisingly light, the cake itself has a slight hint of caramel and tasted almost creamy - absolutely divine.
Unlike many high end restaurants Dinner kindly offer an interchangeable set lunch menu. Basically this means you can choose what you like from the full or set menu, with the cheaper dishes costing as follows: starter (£8), main (£15) and dessert (£5) separately, or £28 for all three. From the set menu (included below) I chose the lemon salad, then quail, with tipsy cake from the main menu.

Lunch Menu. £28 for three courses. Available Monday to Friday between 12:00pm-2:30pm

Starters

Lemon Salad (c.1730)
Goats Curd, Raisins and Verjus

Ragoo of Pigs Ears (c.1750)
Anchovy, Onions and Parsley

Main Courses

Cured Salmon (c.1670)
Beetroot, Purslane and Olive Oil

Roast Quail (c.1590)
Smoked Parsnips and Thyme

Desserts

Chocolate Wine (c.1710)
Millionaire Tart

Orange Buttered Loaf (c.1630)
Mandarin and Thyme Sorbet

Lovely crusty bread and yellow creamy salted butter was brought to the table with our Rose wine. I had pre-promised myself I would not indulge too much in these preliminaries so as to save my appetite. The lemon salad was an interesting starter, though definitely my least favourite course. Lemon rind features in abundance, but is cooked for so long it takes on a new softer flavour and texture. Combining this acidic zest with goat's curd is ideal though my wise grandmother pointed out it perhaps needs another contrasting ingredient. My companion tried the ragoo which is served warm, it was rich and sweet with a mix of startling aromas; I thought it balanced well.

The Roast Quail for main course was heavenly: tender meat falling easily off the tiny bird’s bones with crispy salty skin. Accompanied by the silkiest creamed potato (that is fast becoming my favourite carbohydrate variant) and sweet thin strips of parsnip. The sauce, that I can only assume was made from the reduced stock, covered the meat, and was so good I had to use my finger to mop up the final smudges left on my plate. The outstanding service was noticeable throughout the meal, and our waitress kindly arranged for a portion of Heston’s famous triple cooked chips to be sent to me when I asked to try the delicacy! They came chunky, which is not my preference, but the proof is in the eating, and I’m pleased to report they are just as tasty as I’d imagined.

The rest of my table tried other mains: the salmon from the set menu which is bizarrely served with beetroot, not a likely marriage of flavours; the main menu powdered duck, an enviably large portion served with smoked fennel and potato puree: succulent and tender meat cooked to perfection and coated with a rich dark sauce to make you drool.

Dessert time and my wonderful little tipsy cake came and went pretty quickly; I could have easily eaten a second helping. Other puddings ordered were chocolate based: the chocolate wine with millionaire tart and chocolate bar with passion fruit and ginger ice-cream, both were nice, but sadly for them nowhere near as delectable as my glorious tipsy treat.

Coffees and unusual teas followed – I had a rosebud infusion, light and delicious. Accompanying came miniature pots of complimentary mousse: white chocolate with cardamon wafer biscuits. I am always terribly disappointed if I don’t receive a sweet surprise freebie at the end so was pleased with this. After our meal the charming waitress chatted to us about her journey with Heston’s Dinner... the training, the unbelievable education about his unique culinary style and everything else that comes with such a job. Before even opening, Dinner became impossibly desirable, as tables were snatched within seconds producing a lengthy waiting list.

It seems Dinner really is the hottest ticket in town – now I know why.

Booking for July onwards starts on 1 April.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Sienna Miller in Flare Path at Theatre Royal Haymarket


Trevor Nunn’s new production of ‘Flare Path’ at the Theatre Royal Haymarket is delightfully warming and optimistic. This play, rarely considered to be one of Terence Rattigan’s best, is moving and funny in equal measure.

The story takes place in a shabby hotel lounge reception, in the autumn of 1941 in the middle of World War II. The establishment accommodates RAF pilots and crews before and after their dangerous bombing missions, with the poor waiting wives in tow. As the men go out on a mission, there is a personal battle in the hotel as Hollywood star Peter Kyle comes to claim his great love, Patricia, a newly wedded woman with whom he has previously had a tumultuous affair. She has to decide who needs her more: the aging actor who is quickly losing his fame, or her outwardly brave and cheerful husband who confides in her that he is secretly terrified and crumbling under the pressure of his horrific job.

Sienna Miller is sure to be the box office pull for this play. Her natural beauty and allure is perfect for the part of the glamorous actress Patricia Warren, and paired with a suitably strained characterisation, she convincingly plays the role of the girl with a perplexing moral dilemma. She seems eager to please the spectators, though occasionally is a little too cautious, and could perhaps risk more power and passion.

Flare Path is an ensemble effort, with an exceptionally strong cast. The outstanding star for me is Sheridan Smith, the girl who made Legally Blonde such a hit at the Savoy. A former barmaid, she finds herself a Polish countess after marrying the Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (Johnny). Her chirpy demeanour and cute bubbly character entertains all at the hotel and indeed the audience too, but when her beloved husband is reported to be missing-in-action she is catapulted into grave despair. The depth of character she portrays is quite astounding and beautiful to watch; this is especially evident when a letter is translated for her telling of Johnny’s adoration for her. Her bravery and charm is quite heartbreaking and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in shedding a tear.

Harry Hadden-Paton excels too as scared Flight Lieutenant Graham (Teddy) and husband to Patricia. He is excitable and energetic and yet hides many of his feelings much like a teenage boy. Hadden-Paton manages the tricky balance between playing the role of a leader ( of the men in his squadron) and being desperately in need of care himself (eventually a job fulfilled by his wife). Of the supporting roles, I was stunned by my friend Matt Tennyson who I was thrilled to see taking the part of young waiter, Percy. So convincing was he that I only noticed it was him one hour in! Dashing about, he acted wonderfully amongst the cast of established stars fitting right in.

Despite sitting way up in the cheap seats, spending three hours straining my poor back, I absolutely loved every minute of Flare Path. This sublime production captured my heart and left me wanting more - another resounding success for the King of Theatre, Sir Trevor Nunn.
Flare Path continues until 4 June, book here.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 43



I think it’s time that I told you all about my greatest shopping secret, Notting Hill’s retro shops. Many a time I have found myself alarmingly bored of my wardrobe - my drawers cluttered with last season’s has beens, staring sadly up at me - and feel desperate for a revamp or at least one exciting new garment. I am overly sentimental, so sometimes getting rid of that special dress or meaningful t-shirt can be very difficult. With the prospect of new clothes though comes strength; this is the beauty of exchange.

Once I have stuffed a bulging bag of giveaways, I take it along to Notting Hill to see how much they are willing to give me for it. Each piece is priced separately and depends on quality, size and how ‘on trend’ it happens to be at that point in time. The current season and weather also affect how much they give you, as this all contributes to the garment’s selling potential. The final price is offered in cash, or doubled in vouchers.
These shops cater for all needs with two RETRO WOMAN shops, a RETRO MAN shop, music, book and even homeware shops. The best thing about the vouchers is they can be received and used in any of the shops, so you could take in a load of books, and use the vouchers to buy yourself a new outfit! I recently took in a few old jackets that I had grown out of, including a grey and black checked velvet Luella number, and in exchange bought a beautiful orange silk Hermes head scarf that I completely adore.

Unlike a lot of London’s vintage outlets, these aren’t ridiculously overpriced, and with several different shops in the same vicinity, there is a wide variety of designers and prices to choose from. Rokit, Absolute Vintage and other chains tend to limit their collections to the look of the moment, with identikit layouts, and rails of the same item in every colour and size. Notting Hill’s shops are much more individual, there is only ever one of anything, so you walk away feeling like you have found something really special every time.

Located around Notting Hill Gate station, open 7 days a week.

Friday, 18 March 2011

E.O. Hoppe at The National Portrait Gallery


The first major E. O. Hoppe exhibition in thirty years begins with a dazzling silver print self portrait. I went along to the National Portrait Gallery for a lunchtime excursion on a sunny day last week. Even at 2pm on a Monday afternoon the gallery was busy, so I can only imagine what it is like at weekends. Notebook in hand I wandered round ready for my first Hoppe experience.

In the 1920s Hoppe was one of the most famous photographers in the world, and yet when he died in 1972 he was almost forgotten. He was a well connected man, a close friend of George Bernard Shaw, and evidently from this show, acquainted with rather a lot of other progressive and creative people. Celebrity portraits range from Thomas Hardy to Albert Einstein, King George V to Mussolini, and numerous names in between. All of these unique portrayals can be seen hanging side by side like a wall of fame. Many of the photos have been forgotten or lost and unseen before.

Hoppe’s images catch the sitter’s spirit, character and even mood. A rare picture of dancer and choreographer, Nijinsky shows him hanging his head in exhaustion, eyes closed, backstage after a performance, it certainly is not a conventional photo of this flamboyant icon. Hoppe is keen to express individuality and seems adamant that a genuine attitude should come across in the subject’s gaze, whether they are looking into the lens or gazing elsewhere.

When he wasn’t mixing with the stars, Hoppe was a pioneering street photographer, often using undercover equipment to capture his subject unaware. Most often he would use a hidden Kodak Brownie wrapped in brown paper, this enabled the remarkable spontaneity of the photographs.

Easily my favourite photograph of the lot is ‘The Pearlies’. This image (shown above) captures the concentration of a little boy tucked tightly into his stiff mini pearly outfit complete with cap. I was fixated by this little man, it reminded me of my own brothers posing and staring at the camera when they were toddlers.

The Westminster Gazette commented that Hoppe “may indeed claim to have made the camera sing” and I couldn’t agree more. With such illuminating portraits, I am just surprised it has taken so long for his revolutionary photography to be properly celebrated.

Show continues until 30 May 2011, book here.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Wizard of Oz at The London Palladium


I was finally off to see the Wizard, the new production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at The Palladium. ‘Wicked’ has been dominating the London stage for long enough, it’s about time the original story marked its territory. I was unsure before arriving what to expect, I had read mixed reviews and with the stigma of Lloyd Webber, I was prepared for disappointment.

Having auditioned for Dorothy on the TV programme myself I was very eager to see the winning girl, Danielle Hope, in what is her professional West End debut. Even though she has just completed a three month intensive musical theatre course, no amount of training can adequately prepare a young girl for performing with a live dog, and this she does with ease and charm; she seems completely unfazed. She avoids the gushy sentimentality that comes with a part like Dorothy - she has a strong voice with just the right amount of vulnerability and an expression of hope in her eyes. I couldn’t fault her. This production also welcomes Michael Crawford back to the stage. Known best as the ‘original Phantom’ he is at home in this Lloyd Webber extravaganza.

No expense is spared with spectacular special effects at every turn. I was overwhelmed by the sparkling revolving set, the glorious costumes and the convincing cyclone film as the dear little Kansas cottage gets swept into oblivion. Each manoeuvre is executed to perfection, including incredible stunts hovering over the audience. Set and Costume designer Robert Jones is inspired with his crafty ideas and imaginative visions.

Along with the familiar classics, three new songs have been added in to fill out the show. Lloyd Webber and Rice have composed these additions and they are surprisingly acceptable, I assumed they would stick out like a sore thumb. The new numbers remind me of Wicked, unlike the original Harold Arlen songs in the Wizard of Oz, these have less repetition and move away from the innocent quality of the show. Hannah Waddingham is brilliant as the pointy nosed cruel witch, and even has her own song and dance, in which she does a bizarre Cheryl Cole like routine. Dorothy’s three loyal friends are well cast too, Paul Keating as the dippy scarecrow, Edward Baker-Duly playing a fantastic tap dancing tin man and David Ganly as the overtly camp lion.

It’s a real shame that the advertising for the return of this popular show is so kitsch. I was misled by the gaudy posters, and I’m sure many more will be put off from seeing the show altogether. Those that do chance it and go along will be glad they did; even those determined anti-Lloyd Webberites cannot deny this is an all round brilliant production.

Booking until 17 September 2011, book here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Red Shoes at BAC


Last week was my first time at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), a grand old town hall that houses a wealth of arts programmes and performances. I’ve often heard of exciting projects going on there and am glad to have finally visited. Currently they are showing the macabre and menacing ‘The Red Shoes’.

BAC is a short bus ride from Clapham Common tube station and is South London’s biggest hope as an independent theatre venue. The interior has a certain exhilarating grandeur and with a busy bar and restaurant area there is a real buzz about this place. On entering I immediately felt compelled to explore my surroundings.

The Red Shoes is brought to us by quirky and innovative theatre group Kneehigh who originally had success with their production of this play ten years back. Essentially it is a folktale conjuring up a strange world with dark secrets, a story that Kneehigh hope will “resonate with all times, places and people”. I watched wide-eyed, confused and enthralled by what I saw. This piece is certainly completely nonsensical, never has there been such an appropriate use of the word, but this perhaps gives it its appeal.

The cast are a motley crew, in a uniform of plain white men’s underwear, and with shaved heads, they don’t even have hair to characterise them. Before the show they wander amongst the crowded foyer playing their instruments in a melancholic fashion. Their eyes are circled with dark make up, their numb expressions are creepily dehumanised.

Patrycja Kujawska is strikingly scary as the play’s main girl. She is mute throughout but speaks volumes with her glaring eyes and spooky smirk. She dons hard clunky red clogs that although feminine, look extremely heavy and cumbersome. The Girl is obsessed with and eventually possessed by these shoes; they force her to dance continually and relentlessly, and dance she does with endless energy and demonic animation.

Two musicians sit either side of the stage, they too wear the underwear outfit. Stu Barker and Ian Ross play a huge variety of instruments and give the show character and spirited ambience. The music tells the story just as much as the script, the haunting folk melody that frequently returns is beautiful and very similar to the band Beirut’s lilting tunes.

Of the four male actors (who make up the rest of the cast) I was entranced by Giles King as Lady Lydia, the eccentric cross dressing compere. Oddly sexy and mischievous she/he reminded me of Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka. The stage is small but fully adaptable - Lady Lydia stands above on a balcony for much of the play, she manipulates her company to re-enact her dreadful story, and armed with a long fishing line is a cruel puppeteer.

The Red Shoes is a truly dark but magical show, how a derelict building can be transformed and hold such an atmosphere will amaze audiences every night.

If you can’t make it to this show, Kneehigh’s West End production ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ is in full swing on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Continues until 9 April, book here.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Donmar


A spelling bee is a very American phenomenon, so it is questionable whether the Donmar’s new production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ will resonate with a British audience. This stylish one act musical comedy, with music and lyrics by William Finn, is a short show about a fictional spelling bee, with a distinct lack of storyline despite originating from Rachel Sheinkin’s witty book. Much like Million Dollar Quartet, which I saw last week, it is a musical about one special event on one day.

The Donmar Theatre is a gem in the centre of Covent Garden, whose productions regularly receive critical acclaim. It is not unusual to see queues of hopeful punters waiting to try and snatch the few remaining day tickets hours before a performance. After hearing the music of this American revue at University I booked well ahead of time to secure my seat.

Along with the six wacky contestant characters, the actors are joined on stage by four willing and brave audience members who must actively take part in the spelling competition. I wasn’t feeling 100 percent on the night so didn’t volunteer myself, as I normally would. The poor participants have to suffer as the judging panel call them up to spell, announcing them with hilariously cruel introductions. The words given are unrecognisably tricky, so when one audience member correctly answered three words the improvising actors had to stifle a giggle wondering what to do next... for us watching it was eye-wateringly funny.

It is a chirpy piece and I really enjoyed it, though I can understand why some are not so keen on its cutesy agenda, it does seem a strange programming choice for the Donmar after the prestigious production of King Lear. The music is fast and furious with snappy witty words. As I said before, there is little action, and the songs mostly involve the characters singing about their feelings, on a very superficial level.

Christopher Oram’s school gymnasium set is perfect and immediately creates the scene. Of the six geeky kids, it is David Flynn as rotund and repressed William Barfee that stands out for me. Utterly hilarious he brings his own quirks to the role, becoming a startlingly convincing teenager. There are brilliant performances throughout, Ako Mitchell is absolutely fantastic as the counsellor on standby to comfort losing contestants, he has a nonchalance that is very natural on stage and a stunning voice of gold. Iris Roberts is great as the enthusiastic lisping girl who is eager to please and Steve Pemberton thrills as the creepy principle.

A silly show with a real feel-good factor. Book here.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 42


The desperate need to save for my New York trip later this month means absolutely NO clothes purchases - much better to scrimp now so that I can afford to buy myself a few special souvenirs of the Big Apple. This plan would be a great deal easier if Whistles had not brought out their best collection yet; several pieces are taunting me with their undeniable allure.

Cheerful, bright-coloured outfits are livening up the whole highstreet, with Whistles leading the pack. Their most recent collection is full of distinctive statement pieces glowing with eye catching tints. Of the lot, my favourite piece has to be the beautiful neon coral pleated Carrie skirt. I went to try this on last week, and can assure you that in the flesh the hue is quite divine, and I’m sure would look super glamourous with a glowing tan. It is priced at £95, but look out for discount offers in magazines (Glamour recently had a 20% off voucher!)

I fell in love instantly and, when I discovered they didn’t have it in my size, immediately pleaded with them to phone and check every other London branch. It turned out that nowhere had the size 10, perhaps a blessing in disguise, but heartbreaking. I tried to manipulate the 12 into working on my figure, but this is a skirt that needs to be on the waist, so it’s no good getting a size that hopelessly falls down – as it just won’t flatter your figure.

Aside from the fluoro skirt, I always adore the silk shirts in Whistles and this season is no exception. The slim 70s blouse comes in a bubbly pink and a fresh turquoise (that miraculously manages to avoid looking like a uniform shirt). This is a slim-fitting, sand-washed top that is so soft to wear and beautifully tailored, also costing £95.

Whistles is the upper end of highstreet along with Reiss, and I try to wait till the sales to buy their clothes, but if you want one piece to take you through the summer this is the shop to visit.

Look at Whistles website here.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Puckoon at the Leicester Square Theatre


Spike Milligan is an acquired taste. On tour across Ireland, the audiences apparently loved his Puckoon and a few nights ago most of Leicester Square Theatre seemed to be chuckling away but I just didn’t get this play. The lead, Dan Milligan asks towards the end, “What is this play about anyway?” and I couldn’t help but wonder. I left completely confused!

This dingy comedy theatre is sandwiched between the cinemas and Chinatown. When we arrived there was a long queue outside eager to get in. Our seats were right at the front so I had ample space to spread out and get comfy. It soon became apparent that there is no real narrative to Puckoon, at least not one that is possible to discern, much like the Red Shoes it is a folktale though with less of a resonant message.

The muso-actors in Puckoon are multi-talented, each taking on a different character every minute. Paul Boyd sits by the piano (as the Writer) providing a running commentary and musical interludes throughout. I enjoyed the music and feel it adds another dimension to the piece. It is impressive to see such a large variety of instruments played including ukulele, flute, harmonica and percussion.

Six witty men make up the cast but the constant manic dashing about means it is difficult to concentrate on any one of them. Russell Morton is particularly engaging. I have seen him previously in Bent at the Tabard and was pleased to spot a familiar face amongst the mayhem. He displays real versatility and even managed occasionally to make me laugh.

A strange little play that will, I’m sure, amuse some audiences, but was unfortunately really not for me.

Puckoon continues until 27 March, book here.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Detroit Cocktail bar in Covent Garden


Going out in Central London doesn’t have to be insanely pricey. Last weekend I was invited to 'Detroit' for a friend’s birthday celebration. Tucked away just behind Seven Dials in the heart of Covent Garden, this is a convenient bar in which to meet.

Detroit has real character and flare, with a stylish and comfortable interior, plenty of seating, and even some individual booths for those wanting a more exclusive private area. There are far too many pretentious London venues, but luckily this is not one of those. It was a Saturday evening and there was a real buzz but even though the place was busy the atmosphere was relaxed and easy going.

The cocktails are what make this London bar so supreme, a delicate mix of flavours and aromas make Detroit’s drinks original and delicious. The bartenders are expert at what they do, and are seriously clued up as to which spirit works with which. They will help decide on a drink that suits your preferences but for this tailor-made service you will have to wait. While it’s relatively easy to order a couple of beers, the cocktail crew are constantly busy juggling bottles, mixing and tasting - so getting noticed can be rather tricky. Once I had their attention I was able to order a pear and cardamom martini, loving pear I thought this one was worth a try. It was so good, really fresh tasting with just the mildest hint of spice, lucky as I was beginning to worry it would taste more like a curry with cardamom as an ingredient!

We had a great night at Detroit and with cocktails priced at a reasonable £6.95, it’s worth going just to try a few out.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

CHANEL Giveaway


To make this the best giveaway I need the best prize and that is why I will be giving away not any old designer make-up but Chanel. The newest special edition nail varnish, Black Pearl. Inspired by the Black Swan movie this is part of the pearl range (centre in the picture above). Sultry, sexy and gothic this colour is sold out Nationwide. I managed to get in there quick to get one just for you.

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.

And the winner is ... GRAPHIC FOODIE



And the winner is ... Graphic Foodie.

I hope you are free this Saturday 12th March, 10am-2pm to redeem your prize of 2 places on the pasta making course!

Please contact me before 7pm today otherwise I will have to reallocate the prize.

Well Done!

Alice in Wonderland ballet at The Royal Opera House






I booked tickets for the Royal Ballet’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ at The Royal Opera House way back in September which was lucky because despite only starting its run this March the entire run sold out last October six months ahead of the performances, too early for the popularity to be explained by the Black Swan phenomenon. So what is it that has made this new ballet such a predetermined hit?

Alice is the first full length work to be created by the Royal Ballet since 1995. Here finally is a piece to rival the Nutcracker’s supremacy, perhaps enough to knock it off the top spot. The mysterious tale is popular with adults and children alike as witnessed by the success of Tim Burton's recent film. It was just a matter of time before it was adapted and staged as a ballet.

This is storytelling at its very best, with no detail of Lewis Carroll’s original book neglected. Christopher Wheeldon is a provocative choreographer who seems to have examined the qualities of the narrative. The magic is all there, magnified even with an exquisite set and breathtaking puppetry. Even with the financial support that Wheeldon was fortunate to receive, the staging presents some seemingly impossible tasks... episodes like the growing and shrinking Alice are achieved miraculously.

Lauren Cuthbertson is a fresh, gracious and inquisitive young Alice. She has the ability to capture real emotion through both her dancing and her cheeky facial expressions; she is utterly engaging throughout. It is a big role to play, she barely leaves the stage, and when she isn’t falling or racing about, her time is spent twisting and twirling. The narrative is slightly altered in this adaptation: though lured down the rabbit hole by the bonkers white rabbit, it is the gardener’s boy (Sergei Polunin) she is keen to pursue, a love interest that is very much a part of the new storyline.

The music, by Joby Talbot, is suitably weird and wonderful; led by a huge percussion section of five bold players, the melodies soar and the rhythms match the dizzying story perfectly. I was sitting directly above the orchestra (high up in the £8 seats!) and could see the power and energy of the conductor Barry Wordsworth, the new score is obviously exciting them as much as it is being gratefully received by us. The music is at times very filmic but nonetheless very danceable and appropriate for Lewis Carroll.

I have played an evil red Queen in my time as a performer and can say she is a fabulously fun villain to be; fierce Zenaida Yanowsky triumphs as the Queen of Hearts relishing every ounce of nastiness much to the delight of the audience. She arrives in a red heart chariot, eyes glaring and finger pointing at anyone who dares look her way. The carriage later opens to reveal the poor tired King kneeling at her feet, kicked about by her dangerously pointed shoes. I have never heard the Royal Opera House roar with laughter like it did while Yanowsky frolicked about on stage, long gone are the pretty ballerinas.

The mad hatter, played here by a very talented Steven McRae, is meant to be a rambling chatterbox – a character that is difficult to convey in speechless ballet. Wheeldon replaces chatter with tap dancing, his marvellously frenzied footwork contrasts with the classically dancing Alice. The magnificent costumes leave little to the imagination, no expense is spared, everyone looks outrageous. I particularly loved the little kids rolling about in spiky outfits as the hedgehogs and the pink clad girls delicately hopping on one leg, mimicking flamingos.
I found the first act a little long, and was ready for the interval when it came. The second half moves more quickly, with awe inspiring dances, one after another. The choreography here is not as complex or virtuosic as it might be but amazes because it is beautiful and full of panache.

Long live Weeldon’s Alice, I predict it will be an immortal classic, a success that the Royal Ballet has been craving for a while. It is criminal that there are only six performances.
See more on the Royal Opera House website here.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Les Deux Salons Restaurant


Les Deux Salons is part of the same family of restaurants as Arbutus and Wild Honey (both awarded with Michelin stars). This restaurant has a more relaxed feel though with a menu that isn’t as rich and daring as the choices I saw at Arbutus.

I received an email a few mornings ago advertising their £15.50 pre-theatre three course menu - surprised at the value I phoned up and booked immediately. To be found just round the corner from the Colliseum, the location is ideal for a visit before a show, just a short walk from Shaftesbury Avenue and the rest of London’s West End. Les Deux Salons opened quite recently and calls itself a French Brasserie, traditional and spacious with an amazing mosaic floor. The interior struck me at once as being very French, very similar design and decor to Chartier, the extra cheap canteen eatery I fell in love with while visiting Paris last year.

The a la carte menu is detailed and varied with a great deal of choice, I even spotted a cheeseburger on there. With main courses costing £15 - £25 we decided the set menu was definitely the most sensible use of our money.

SET MENU

Farmhouse Country Terrine
Vegetable Minestrone
--
Cornish Mullet, Smoked Eel Risotto
Italian Sausages, Puy Lentils, Seasonal Vegetables
--
Blackberry & Vanilla Cheesecake Renverse
Cheese

3 courses £15.50

After feasting on so many successful set menus recently, I had high hopes for Les Deux Salons. From the first glance you can see this menu is simple with no fuss – food for the everyman. Aside from the very crusty bread brought to our table, my choices (minestrone and then sausages) were served with no carbohydrates, making the meal light but wholesome.

The food had good flavour, and used ingredients that were fresh and in season; however I felt disappointed that it wasn’t more special, this I realise is the difference between an establishment with star quality and a place that is quite simply a good restaurant, if that makes sense. I guess for such a bargain price you can’t expect caviar.

The dessert was divine and I polished off every last crumb. With all the components of a cheesecake, but in reverse; cream cheese mousse on the bottom, a fruity compote and crumbled biscuit on top, it worked really well.

Three course meal for two for well under £35 all inclusive. Excellent value set menu, but you can tell that it is the cheaper option, if I go again I’ll be trying the a la carte.
Visit the website and book here.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Heretic at The Royal Court


The Royal Court is fast becoming my favourite London theatre. The productions here seem to have a style that is strangely magnetic. Conveniently located next door to Sloane Square tube station, it couldn't be easier. I went last weekend to see the Saturday matinee of ‘The Heretic’, the much talked about play by Richard Bean. I purchased £8 ‘under 26’ balcony tickets from the few remaining the day before, snatching an absolute bargain.

When we arrived on the grey afternoon the box office was chaos, with several poor stewards desperately trying to deal with an epic ticket error – many of the seats bought on ‘Last Minute’ had been booked twice, making double the amount of punters to seats. Luckily I booked my tickets on the theatre website so waltzed right through the angry crowds to the busy bar area.

The Heretic deals with the topic of climate change, much like the National’s Greenland, and touches on many of the issues thrashed out in ‘Earthquakes of London’. But unlike the other plays, The Heretic has a more optimistic feel due to the female protagonistic, Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson). I enjoyed seeing a play on this delicate subject that argues both sides of the debate convincingly rather than a depressing doom and gloom piece about the inevitable and imminent bitter end of our planet.

Dr Cassell is a leading Earth Sciences lecturer at a Yorkshire University, researching rising sea levels in the Maldives. She is a climate change sceptic preaching to those who will listen about her conclusive results that the sea level is not rising. Her listener turns out to be a lonely but passionate 19 year old student Ben, he admires her studies but is especially interested in her anorexic, manic Greenpeace-obsessed daughter, Phoebe. Cassell’s views inevitably land her in trouble, with death threats and the loss of her job thanks to adversarial colleague and ex-lover, Professor Kevin Maloney.

I found the play thoroughly entertaining though the focus seems to disappear in the second half. Stevenson as the heroine is firmly convincing throughout, commanding the stage with a poignant realism. James Fleet brings another dimension to the cast as Faculty leader Maloney. I felt completely at ease watching him and he makes a serious subject gut-achingly funny.

I admired Johnny Flynn from afar at Hop Farm Festival last summer where he sang with his talented band. He has a delicate yet rich voice, and is a fantastic multi instrumentalist, little did I know he could act so spectacularly too. The young droopy haired lad speaks almost entirely in an upbeat rap style, his crafty innuendo is hysterical. He captures the awkward demeanour of his character perfectly, like the part had been written for him.

The Heretic is on at the Royal Court until 19th March. A clever and witty play, I absolutely loved it.
Book here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 41


The days of natural fibres are long, long gone... and the highstreet stores are cashing in on cheaper, more versatile materials – goodbye cotton and silk, hello nylon and viscose. And as prices continue to rise, quality takes a tumble. I can’t stand wearing clothes made from synthetic materials, I find them itchy, hot and sticky and aesthetically incomparable to the real thing. Washing-wise they are usually easier, but are prone to shrinking and changing shape, leading to disappointment.

It breaks my heart to see so many tacky materials filling the rails in popular stores like Topshop and French Connection, and while others may continue to waste money on their unnatural garments I refuse to. Okay, rant over. While browsing for shoes in Topshop the other day I came across a gypsy yellow silk shirt, made from, believe it or not... real silk! Faded and delicate, with sweet tassle detailing - I instantly adored it.

Overjoyed with my unique find I rushed to the nearest mirror to try on the beauty (see picture above). I sampled different sizes but decided the largest 14 would suit my needs best: I could wear the shirt as a loose summer top, perhaps over a bikini or with denim shorts. Assuming it would fall within the usual £30-40 price range, I took the shirt to the till, ready to forgive Topshop for all its viscose sins.

“That will be £70 please, would you like a bag?” Horrified I turned away, I just couldn’t justify spending £70 on a shirt in Topshop, no matter how pretty and soft. So that’s where the dream ended, and I left Topshop empty handed. Weeks later I am still dreaming about that pretty shirt, impressed that Topshop have at least one naturally made garment. Not worth the price, but a beautiful top if you do feel like splashing out on a highstreet treasure.

Buy here.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Million Dollar Quartet at The Noel Coward Theatre



Shows are getting shorter, often without an interval. This is something I’ve noticed when visiting the theatre recently to see performances that frequently last less than two hours. I am often grateful – I easily exhaust watching plays every night.

You may have seen the bright Million Dollar Quartet sign near Leicester Square, it has been up for some time. The musical celebrates the night that four of the greatest rock’n’roll legends came together: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins under the guidance of Sam Phillips, record producer at Sun Records. On this night in 1956 the four have an epic jam session and make music history.

This show is lots of fun, and the score will delight visitors of all ages. The production is less a musical than a tribute act, with four very talented impersonators. There is little narrative, so if you need the loo halfway through the most you’re going to miss is a favourite Elvis number. While watching, I found many parallels with Woody Sez, the show on just round the corner showcasing folk artist Woody Guthrie’s life and music. There are also numerous similarities with great box office success ‘Jersey Boys’, even noticeable in the staging that favours dramatic static poses and strong silhouettes.

Of the four performers Ben Goddard sparkles brightest, playing the cheeky Jerry Lee Lewis, he has a magnetic spirit and an irresistible charm. He is an exceptional pianist and has a voice that is full of fire. Goddard energises the score matching the original Jerry Lee’s star quality. Robert Britton Lyons has a tricky task playing the less famous musician Carl Perkins, luckily his supreme guitar skills make up for the slightly bland characterisation. Both Derek Hagen (Johnny Cash) and Michael Malarkey (Elvis Presley) fulfil the brief as their respective legends, it is a pleasure to listen to their renditions of some classic numbers and they seem to love being up there. There is secure back-up too from Francesca Jackson as Presley’s squeeze, Dyanne and Bill Ward as the enthusiastic ringleader Sam Phillips.

Although Million Dollar Quartet may not be as durable as its competitors no-one can deny the talent and fun that the show displays by the bucket-load.

Continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 1 October 2011, book here.

Friday, 4 March 2011

FRANKENSTEIN at The National Theatre


Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is probably the most talked about play this season, an adaptation by Nick Dear of Mary Shelley's classic novel. The central pair: creator (Victor Frankenstein) and creation are unusually cross-cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing both roles, switching each night. This is, of course to represent the cruel duo as one, though it is a strategy that causes some debate. Reviewers were invited to both alternatives to grasp the effect of the idea... Lee Miller seems to have come out on top, receiving all four star reviews. It is an interesting concept, but one that I believe can compromise the quality of a performance, after all can an actor be as convincingly in character if he is having to constantly switch. And if Lee Miller is better as the creature why not keep it that way every night? I saw him in this role and suspect it to be the preferred casting, but with not enough time to see the vice-versa line-up, I will never know.

The NT press team is not keen on niceties, with the theatre at the top of its game there is a tendency to be arrogant. They can be as brash and brutal as they want and the majority of their shows will still sell out. I experienced a curt unkind woman first hand and it rather deterred me from spending a fortune on Frankenstein tickets. I’d almost completely given up hope of seeing this heralded production when my friend mentioned the standing tickets obtainable from the box office on the day. Last minute tickets are a crafty way to secure seats in popular London theatres but usually it is necessary to queue for hours. I was sceptical that it was possible to procure tickets for Frankenstein this way, but after holding on the phone for a manageable ten minutes I was through and two minutes later I had booked and paid for two £5 standing tickets for that evening's performance - hurrah! I’m not one to update my facebook status every half hour, but my jublilation at my success lead me to notify my friends that I was one of the lucky few with a hot ticket to the latest theatrical phenomenon.

For the first ten minutes the stage belongs to ‘the Creature’. We watch a man being born out of a circular contraption that looks like the skin of a giant African drum. Once broken through he scrambles about on stage naked and dirty like a deranged toddler. With no speech, the audience watch in amazement as he thrashes himself against the floor struggling to walk; it should be painful to watch but Lee Miller acts with such realism and compassion that I began to wish the sequence would continue. Soon this spellbindingly physical scene is curtailed by a steam train rolling steadily towards the audience, and the rest of the play is underway.

We do not meet the Frankenstein family for a good while, meanwhile we see the creature acclimatising himself to the world, and with the help of a kind blind old man (beautifully played by Karl Johnson) he becomes more human, even beginning to feel emotion. Benedict Cumberbatch is immediately powerful on stage, it is something about his mannerisms and the intense furrowing of his thoughtful face.

The soundtrack accompanying the action is impressive on many levels - as you enter a heavy bell tolls in the centre of the auditorium, throughout there is melancholic guitar playing, beggars wailing a chorus and an atmospheric frequently returning melody. This reminded me of the introduction of Ave Maria, memorable but with a sadness that submerges your mind. The set has a gothic punk feel, and reminded me slightly of the expansive scenery in ENO’s Parsifal. Scene changes are frequent and swift with sets flying in and the central part of the stage rotating round, all very otherworldly. It is a tour de force from Mark Tildesley, who previously designed His Dark Materials.

The intensity of both Miller and Cumberbatch would make the show exceptional which ever way round they were playing it, but there is something about the raw energy of Miller that makes him just that bit more animalistic. The rest of the cast cannot compare, and appear a little bland against these stars, it doesn’t matter though as no-one is looking at them.

Bizarrely in the car on the way home from the National, Danny Boyle was presenting on Radio 2, so after seeing his tremendous show we listened to him interviewing too.

Call the box office after 9.30 am (on day of show) to get £5 standing tickets for Frankenstein – 0207 452 3000. And if you’re between the ages of 16-25 it is well worth signing up to the NT Entry Pass scheme - it is free to join and you can then book one of the £5 tickets allocated for all shows, and you can bring a friend along for only £7.50.