Spontaneity versus planning

I’m of the opinion that one can be both a fan of the well planned, and inclined towards spontaneity.

I like a good plan. I like to know where my life is headed. I like to know things in advance.
But, I also like having the space into diary to be spontaneous. Or, rather, to have the space in which to be spontaneous. A too-full diary means saying no to fun things that might be last minute, and that would be sad…

This past weekend was an excellent example of this dichotomy. Since January, theatre tickets had been booked for Sunday & Monday. An empty diary for Friday night and some late Thursday night ticket booking allowed for a spontaneous trip to the theatre.

April Musical FunMormon, Commitments & Matilda. Am I annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the outside of The Cambridge Theatre? You bet I am! 

There is a myth that theatre in the West End is unaffordable and difficult to do at the last minute. Admittedly, ‘affordable’ is subjective, but I consider anything £25 or under to be good value. (I ought to confess that I have also been very lucky in having friends over the years who have secured freebies, so I’m spoilt.) Our tickets on Friday were £20 + booking fee – and they were good.

What follows is some wisdom I’ve amassed regarding theatre going in London. It’s my personal opinion (obviously), but some of it might prove to be useful…

Last Minute Tickets
It’s never too late to book tickets. (Well, until the show starts, obviously.) Some of my favourite theatre-going moments were the result of spontaneity. Like £15 tickets to A Chorus Line, less than 2 hours before curtain up. We should have been up in the gods, but ticket sales were low and the upper circles were closed – we ended up in row D of the stalls and had a jolly good time. Tickets were courtesy of the ticket booth inside Leicester Square station (thank you sibling’s out of work actor friends…) and the moral is: never be afraid to ask what the cheapest deal is!

Some shows (not enough, in my opinion) run a lottery for their front row before each performance. It’s a regular occurrence on Broadway, but so far the only shows I know to have done it in London are Legally Blonde and The Book of Mormon – and I’ve benefitted from both. The deal is, you arrive at least 2 hours before the performance, fill in a form & await the drawing of the ‘winning’ forms, which give you the right to bag a bargain. I got Legally Blonde tickets on my first attempt; Mormon ones on my fifth – it can take dedication and good chunks of free time in central London.

Often, there are no ‘bad’ seats
Our £15 Chorus Line tickets were sold to us with the words “there are no bad seats at the Palladium”. One of the tricks to bargain theatre going is getting to know the seating plan. Obviously, the ‘best’ views are the most expensive tickets – but look around. This genius website lets you read reviews of specific seats in specific theatres, rating the view. You might think that sounds ridiculous, but thanks to it, I scored a £20 seat at Billy Elliot, next door to a £60 one. The difference? I supposedly had a restricted view – but the website informed me that the view was fine.

Friday night’s choice was another restricted view (thanks to a ridiculous pillar). We couldn’t check my website friend, but we took the risk – and won. The view was fine, being in row I of the stalls helped a lot (I like being able to see faces), but also, the two seats next to us remained empty, so we scooted over in the interval. You never know when you might get lucky…

Know when to compromise
The 2nd show of the weekend was Matilda, which I’d seen over 2 years ago. But Morv (who I was accompanying to The Book of Mormon for show 3) hadn’t seen it, and we thought we’d fit a performance in. Mormon tickets are pricey (unless you do the lottery), so we didn’t want to pay too much – so ended up on the second from back row of the gods. Morv was desperate to see it, so any seat at all was good for us, even if it meant enduring a Sunday afternoon matinee with a lot of children! (Who, incidentally, behaved beautifully.)

As mentioned, Mormon tickets are pricey and require advance booking (unless you can manage the lottery). Having attempted 3 lotteries with Morv last year, booking tickets had to be the way forward (she lives in Durham, so does not fall into the ‘large periods of time in central London’ category), and we got ours back in January. Booking proved to be tricky, given their policy of not letting you book 2 tickets if it leaves 1 on its own. Plus, it’s the hottest ticket in town and is priced as such (airline style, so prices rise with demand). But, we compromised on view – going for 2 seats in a box that had some form of restricted view. Yes, we compromised WITH A BOX! It was a good compromise – the only bit we couldn’t see was the far end of our side, and very little happened there. Plus, seats in the box (all 4 of them) moved, you could lean out, and it was fine. We didn’t ask how much the couple who joined us had paid for their tickets, given as they’d bought them the night before…

Mormon boxYes, I took a photo of our box. Don’t judge me – Morv took a video of the walk down our own corridor…

Take a risk
Yes, I’d seen Mormon & Matilda before – I’d really enjoyed both of them the first time and would happily see them again – but Friday night’s offering was The Commitments (currently at the Palace Theatre). I’m on intimate terms with the soundtrack (thanks in part to several years singing a Commitments Medley in a youth choir), but never got around to watching the film. Ultimately, I knew it was likely to be fun – and it was. Great music, not much of a plot, lots of cheese – but a great night out. I got to have quality time with a friend and we left the theatre singing the tunes. Good times. There is a lot on in the West End. Some of it is dross (you will not catch me in the queue for Dirty Dancing, for example), but there’s a lot of good stuff.

Take Gin 
Or Pimm’s. Those cocktails in cans are frightfully useful in theatre-going situations. I know how to be über classy…

This final tip’s a little niche. Ever since our first trip to see Legally Blonde, Morv and I have had a soft spot for its leading man. This actor now happens to be playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda – this fact had absolutely nothing to do with our choosing to see it, it’s pure coincidence. Over post-matinee dinner, I tweeted a genuinely well-meant compliment on his performance and became slightly giddy when he replied. I am very easily pleased.

Gaumond Matilda tweet

Tea tips

My name is Liz and I am a tea-aholic. It’s under control and I have no need of an intervention. Honest.

Obviously, this means that discovering the BBC was showing a two-part documentary on the history of tea was greeted with much joy – coupled with rejoicing at the news that Victoria Wood was presenting it. Tea and one of Britain’s funniest women? Yes please!

A Nice Cup of Tea

The documentary is worth watching (you’ve got a few days left to catch it on iPlayer). True, the first part – exploring the role of tea in the empire – did lack some of the finer nuances of imperial history and Britain’s relationship with the people it governed. [Thus speaks the imperial historian…] The second part looked at the role of tea in British society, revealing who it was who came up with the concept of afternoon tea (the Duchess of Bedford) and why tea is now under threat from the rise of coffee. [Coffee will never overtake tea in my world. Love the smell, hate the taste. I thank my superior taste buds.] I made a categorical error in my watching of the second episode. It accompanied a long bubble bath and stupid me didn’t think to make myself a cuppa before lowering myself into the water.

Essentially, the message was that for Brits especially, little competes with “a nice cup of tea” and that the ritual of making such a beverage – the boiling of water; warming of the pot; brewing of leaves; correct ratio of milk to tea; and the process of consuming it – are a centrepiece of society. Plus, tea-addicts will go to great lengths to get the ‘right’ tea. I don’t have a particular brand loyalty (shocking) but I have had to carry PG Tips half-way across the world to satisfy the cravings of my American Anglophile friend Ian.

As you may remember, prior to travelling to France for Chateau Duffy #4 I was wrestling with the conundrum of how much tea to take with me for 20 people (including 6 Americans and 4 children). You’ll be pleased to hear that not only did we have enough, we also converted an American child to the wonders of tea. Austin returned home to Texas with a spare pack of tea (yes, we even had spares) with which to continue his habit. I suspect, should I make a return trip to Texas this summer (here’s praying) that I’ll need to pack some tea in my luggage for him. Tea bonded several of us while in France, and sparked an interesting tea-themed dialogue on Twitter with our English plumber last week (post the documentary). He was looking for tea recommendations in London (as in places in which to drink it), and I was racking my brains for my favourites. Having come up with some, I thought it only fair to share it wider…

Tea ShotsTea photography…

My basic tea criteria is that tea needs to be respected and understood. Places like Starbucks and Nero do not understand it and do not respect it. There are bags and hot water – not blends and teapots. Yes, it will do when the need strikes, but they are not places to ‘take tea’. I also like a good atmosphere and nice receptacles. This is how the following list should be understood:

Drink, Shop, Do
It’s kitsch, it’s almost try-hard retro and it can be pricey (for this reason I’ve never partaken of their cake) but it has a marvellous tea-list, terrific motley china and has fun activities of an evening. (I went there last year for an alcoholic beverage and ended up making and decorating a cardboard 2CV while drinking a glass of wine. Awesome.) Plus, its proximity to King’s Cross makes it an amazingly convenient location for meeting people and it’s where I have as many of my meetings with one of my favourite student work colleagues as possible.

The Coffeesmiths Collective
Now found in four locations (Leather Lane, Chancery Lane, Carnaby St & Bishopsgate), it is a mecca for true coffee lovers, as you might expect from a company owned by two Kiwis. But it also respects and understands tea. There’s a list of great blends which always arrive with guidance on how long to brew it – the leaves come separately from the pot and it’s your responsibility to put them in and take them out. I’m a particular fan of their Earl Grey…

The Tea Box
In picturesque Richmond, this is the place to do tea. An amazing tea list and a genius device with which to time brews – it’s worth a trek out there for a visit alone.

The Orange Pekoe
If Richmond isn’t quite posh enough for you, head to nearby Barnes. The Orange Pekoe has an even longer tea list (I think) and a fabulous atmosphere. Tea connoisseurs rate it highly.

Finally, if you can’t make it to any of the above, treat yourself to some decent loose-leaf stuff and recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home. My top-tip is Suki Tea – a company that first sold its products at a stall in St George’s Market in Belfast, from which my mother would buy supplies to send to her tea-aholic daughters. Delightfully, this is now available in cafes in London (I’ve discovered it at the lovely Tinderbox on Upper St, where I drank their Earl Grey Blue Flower this very evening) and online. Hunt it out!

It’s also worth seeking out Flint Tea, partly because it’s the creation of a member of clergy at my previous church and partly because their ‘normal’ tea bears the name ‘Our Daily Brew’ thanks to the wit of one of my fellow ordinands. Oh, and their tins look pretty…

Our Daily Brew

Let this be an encouragement to you to re-examine your tea drinking. Take time to make your daily brew in the proper fashion. Try a different blend or tea-drinking establishment. Buy yourself a decent teapot. Most of all, enjoy it.

Just how long is ‘rather long’?

This past weekend was the annual l’Abri Film Festival – an event I went to for the first time a year ago, and thoroughly enjoyed. I’d planned to go again this year, but sadly circumstances overtook me and I couldn’t make it.

By way of making up for missing a slew of quality cinema, on Saturday night a friend took me to their local video store to rent a film so that I’d have at least watched one film over a weekend when I might otherwise have seen five or six.

Obviously, the first comment to make about this is that we went to an actual video store (well, more appropriately, DVD store) – I had assumed all such places had ceased to exist! Not so! On Brick Lane (at the end nearer the 24/7 bagel shops as opposed to the curry houses) you’ll find Close Up (can you see what they did there?), a self-named ‘film centre’ which goes way beyond the Blockbusters of yesteryear.

That would be the American section. (Credit.)

For a start, they have a brilliant shelving system. (Friends will be aware just how important a methodical shelving system is to me…it’s a major outworking of my OCD.) Yes, there’s a new releases section right by the door, but the rest of the many, many films are organised firstly by country/region, then chronologically (e.g. ‘American 1980s’), with dedicated sections to specific directors, actors or authors. (To be fair, my OCD didn’t cope so well with ‘Dickens’ being a similar category to ‘Leigh’, but never mind.) But seriously, how many places do you know with a dedicated Palestinian film section?! Fabulous.

We made our selections with the assistance of excellent advice from the (rather cute) guys behind the counter, who also complimented us on our first choice of three films – Margaret. In fact, his enthusiastic praise of the film resulted in us choosing that one to watch over the others, but we realised we should have paid attention to his other comment – that it was ‘rather long’

Turns out that by ‘rather long’ he meant ‘a three hour marathon of a film that is only available on DVD in the Director’s cut which remained unreleased for seven years’. Half an hour in, Cathers thought to check the length on the box and we then spent some minutes checking that we’d correctly translated 175 minutes into ‘practically 3 hours’. Having begun the film at 9.30, this was going to result in a very late departure from Bethnal Green.

However, that’s not to say it wasn’t worth spending three hours watching it. To be honest, if we hadn’t of checked, I’m not particularly sure we’d have noticed just how long it was. Perhaps it could have been shorter had some of its dreamy New York City shots been cut, but to be honest, who doesn’t like a shot of NYC in the autumn? It’s rather intense, to the extent that the two of us found ourselves yelling at the screen at various points, having a go at both the teenage protagonist and adult characters who had made stupid errors.

I’m trying to work out if Matt Damon was especially hot because he was playing a preppy teacher….

What confused us though, was just how young Anna Paquin (the main character, though surprisingly not called Margaret) appeared to be, given that the film had only been released this year. Turned out the film was actually made in 2005 (also explaining just how young and especially hot Matt Damon looked), but that a couple of lawsuits had resulted in it being held up. That, and the fact that an agreement couldn’t be reached over how to get the film to a more practical theatrical release length. Thank goodness I had access to IMDB and Wikipedia while watching the movie, so I wasn’t distracted throughout it by this pondering.

And the film? Well, aside from a teenage lead whose neck you want to wring on a regular basis, yet is strangely compelling; the film is well worth the three hours. Chronicling the impact of watching an horrific road accident upon a teenage girl, it manages to be both hard hitting and entertaining while assuring you that you never, ever, want to be a teenager again.

A night amongst stars and books

“On the banks of the Thames, on Shakespeare’s birthday, World Book Night at Southbank Centre presents a glorious array of writers reading from their own work, their favourite novels by classic authors and Shakespeare’s work.”

So read the introduction to an event I had turned up at with only the haziest of ideas of what to expect. (This is what happens when you accept last minute invites to things via Twitter…) I knew about World Book Night – it had launched last year in a very cold Trafalgar Square – and I knew about the books that were being given away all over the country by ‘Givers’. But did I realise that I’d be spending the evening in the same room as some of the country’s most notable authors – including David Nicholls, Iain Banks, Martina Cole, Andrea Levy & Mark Haddon? No.

The evening got off to a fairly good start when I spotted one of the free books on a cafe table, enabling Jo to acquire The Road by Cormac McCarthy before things had even got going. [Incidentally, she’s had 10 copies of The Book Thief to give away, you may be in luck if you head to Marylebone…] Things got even better when we noted the following sentence on the programme:
“Following part one, collect your free cocktail, give books and join us for part two of the evening.”
Seriously? Free books, free booze AND famous authors? That’s almost a perfect evening!

The concept was a fairly simple one – over a couple of hours, authors, actors and poets shared extracts aloud. They shared just enough to whet the audience’s appetites, but not to satisfy. We had a glimpse into another world and having been sucked in, it vanished. For three minutes I lived in the fear of Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead; the dream world of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle; and the hilarity of family life in the Ronson household.

You know how much I enjoy being read to, so imagine just how much I enjoyed being read to by the books’ authors! There’s just something about an author reading their own words with the voices they’ve given their characters. Listening to Andrea Levy read Gilbert’s first moments back in England (from Small Island) was fabulous – she transformed herself into a Jamaican man in 1940’s London with just her voice.

Oh, and it wasn’t all serious highbrow stuff. Any pretence at pretension was shattered when Kathy Lette greeted the audience with the words:
“Good evening members of the literati…and the cliterati, as there are so many women here!”

This year’s WBN list includes many of my all-time favourite books – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Rebecca, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Notes from a Small Island – but after hearing extracts from some of the others, my To Be Read list has just got a lot longer. Plus, there are some that clearly need re-visiting (I have a sneaky suspicion that I never actually finished Small Island – shocking). Take it from me, you might want to investigate the following:
Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham (Or watch the recent Sky1 series.)
How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
The Red House – Mark Haddon (It’s not been published yet, this was its first public reading.)
Honour – Elif Shafak

All this bibliophilic fun makes me even more despondent about my lack of fiction-reading time. Ach well…it’s not like the books won’t be around forever.

The wonderful thing about revolting children

How better to mark World Book Day than with a review of a musical based upon a book, featuring one of literature’s greatest bibliophiles? In fact, how better to celebrate a friend’s 30th than with a trip to what is unquestionably one of the best British musicals ever…

Matilda, stage

The last time the RSC produced a musical about a telekinetic child, it became the quickest, most expensive flop in Broadway’s history – Carrie the Musical is a classic, but for all the wrong reasons. [Though, in its defence, and having listened to the soundtrack multiple times, there are some gems there…] In fact, I was geekily pleased that The Stage referenced it in its review of Matilda:

“A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Misérables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.”

 Musical jackpot it indeed is. It does a rare job of attracting and entertaining adults and children alike. Last night’s audience seemed to consist of vast swathes of children, and hordes of adults around my age. It’s quite possibly a happy coincidence that many of Tim Minchin’s (writer of the musical) fans are a generation that were the right age to read Matilda when the book came out in 1988.Discovering that we were sat in the middle of a massive school group filled me with terror, but it’s testament to the genius of the production that they stayed (pretty) quiet for the duration. Sure, Jo had to explain why we don’t kick seats or predict lines loudly, but most of the time you barely knew they were there. In fact, early on I was worried that the pace of dialogue and clever literary references might have been beyond a crowd of 8 year olds, but as was pointed out to me, there was also an entire scene focused upon ‘the biggest, most chocolatey burp in the world’, which you probably have to be 8 (or male) to truly appreciate. Looking behind me as the theatre was filled with laser beams, I saw a sea of enraptured faces – beautiful.

For those of us who grew up with Dahl, the texts are almost sacred. I doubt you’d find a British child of the 80s/90s who approves of the Matilda film – it’s not even set in England, for goodness sake! The Witches was a good effort, but they changed the ending; and I can’t ever complain about Jonny Depp so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ok, but it says something that Dahl himself didn’t like any of the adaptations he lived to see made. The musical is more faithful to the book than the film – the characters look like they’ve stepped out of Quentin Blake’s illustrations (especially Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull) and the key plot elements are there. Yes, there’s the addition of a glorious story about an escapologist and acrobat used a device to tell the audience about Miss Honey’s parents, but it’s so beautifully done that I couldn’t possibly hold it against them. (Matilda tells the story to the librarian and at one point it’s depicted with shadow puppets, which is simply stunning.)

The script and songs also faithfully adheres to Dahl’s distinctive language. The reason why kids love Dahl is because he speaks like they do – or how they’d like to, if they were allowed. The language is often beautifully disgusting, or taps into the ‘nice naughtiness’ you wish all children had. I’d forgotten just how much of a childhood crime it was to call someone stupid, until Mr Wormwood used the word in reference to an adult member of the audience – the children near me gasped at it!

Before I left for the theatre, a friend commented on my Facebook status and said that she predicted I’d be a Bertie Carvel fan before the night was out – she was right. Bertie is the man – yes, man – who plays Miss Trunchbull, and he’s phenomenal. Pam Ferris was a very masculine Trunchbull in the movie, but the musical goes for a man playing a woman as an effeminate gay man angle, which works spectacularly well. Can you picture the Trunchbull doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon? No? Trust me, it works perfectly! [There’s a glimpse of it in the trailer below.] Listen to her song about throwing the hammer, and you’ll start to understand…

The most important element in a musical has to be the songs, and they are marvellous. If you’re a Tim Minchin fan, you’ll know the range of his style, if you’re not then you’re in for a treat. There’s a real mix of raucous lively numbers and beautifully moving ones. Two of my favourites are helpfully ones that are available on YouTube – the winner of ‘best use of swings in a musical’, When I Grow Up which is almost tear-jerkingly lovely; and the guaranteed to have you clapping and cheering Revolting Children.

That boy who kicks off the song is Bruce Bogtrotter – of chocolate cake fame. There’s an entire song dedicated to that scene – called, aptly, Bruce – one could say that only an Australian could write such an awesome song about a Bruce…

I know I’m a massive musical theatre geek, but this is no niche musical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible pieces of theatre I’ve seen (although One Man Two Guvnors would come a very recent second), and isn’t something parents should begrudge seeing. In fact, I suspect they might enjoy it more than their children do. The major challenge is acquiring decently priced tickets. Last night was clearly a sell-out – unusual for a mid-week evening in term-time – and ‘cheap’ tickets must be nigh-on impossible to come by. But persevere, you won’t regret it.