Hello, gorgeous

Sheridan Smith is a funny, Funny Girl. We were privileged to see her last weekend in the new stage production of that name (Funny Girl, not Sheridan Smith), which finishes its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge this weekend. Easily one of the best and most fun shows we’ve seen.

From the moment Fanny Brice whispered, “Hello, gorgeous,” to her reflection in her dressing-room mirror, we were enthralled, entranced, entertained, moved, captivated, delighted.

Sheridan Smith, a beautiful and skilful comic actress, brings so much charm and wit to the role of Fanny, the ugly-duckling-turned-Ziegfeld-Follies-star. We laughed and cried with her as she sang and one-lined her way to stardom and into heartbreak in the arms of Darius Campbell’s smooth, debonair Nicky Arnstein.

The staging was inventive. The musical direction and all those familiar numbers sublime. Sheridan balanced comic timing with emotion, taking us from awkward squirming out of Nicky Arnstein’s advances in You Are Woman, I am Man to the passionate delivery of People and her poignant, rousing Don’t Rain on My Parade.  She carried the adoring audience – and her enthusiastic cast of singers and dancers – along on her every note.

The ambience and  intimacy of the 150-seater theatre make it an experience unlike any other. Built as a five-storey factory and warehouse for the French Menier Chocolate Company when they expanded overseas between 1865 and 1874, the building opened in 2004 in its current incarnation. According to the website:

“Throughout its history, the Menier Chocolate Factory building has been inspired by both individuality and the pursuit of quality. […] the Chocolate Factory is a stimulating environment to enjoy a high-quality and entertaining theatrical experience.”

“There’s nowhere quite like the Chocolate Factory anywhere … The bubbliest kid on the block, and one of London’s great theatre hopes.”
The Daily Telegraph

It is an extraordinary, beautiful space. It was a privilege to sit in the second row and feel involved in every song and dance routine before us. We’d seen Kyle Riabko’s astounding and beautifully crafted  What’s it all about: Bacharach re-imagined there in July last year, before it too moved to a bigger West End theatre.

A friend once ran out of superlatives as she described a new book. She eventually just said, “Don’t ever not read this book.” I feel the same way about Funny Girl, and Sheridan Smith.

Our red box is richer for these tickets, as are we for the joy of watching Funny Girl. It’s moving to the Savoy Theatre in the West End in April and, who knows, maybe Broadway next. Don’t ever not see this show. Or Sheridan Smith.

Sunshine in London signing off for today!

 

 

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Mind the gap

We spent the afternoon in Hyde Park today. We travelled there on the London Underground and were cautioned to ‘mind the gap between the train and the platform’ as we got off at our station.  At Hyde Park we could have done with a similar caution: ‘Mind the gap between the speaker and the heckler’.

We went to the Park especially to hang out for a while at Speakers’ Corner. We’ve often walked past the speakers and wished we could have listened for a while. It’s quite an education, I tell you. Speakers’ Corner is said to date back to 1855 when the government banned any form of buying or selling on a Sunday, the only day working people had off. Public riots broke out and Hyde Park was used as a location for free speech. According to Wikipedia, The riots and agitation for democratic reform encouraged some to force the issue of the “right to speak” in Hyde Park.”

At our first stop at Speakers’ Corner, the speaker was unable to present his case because hecklers were fighting among themselves. Heated exchanges – often reaching fever pitch – between a man from Pakistan and a man from Iraq drew a crowd of people around them. It got mean and it got angry. Somehow, although sounding personal, it seemed not to offend. “YOU’RE A TRAITOR!” followed by, “YOU’VE NEVER WORKED A DAY IN YOUR LIFE.” “ I DIDN’T HAVE TO. MY FATHER’S AN INDUSTRIALIST.” “AN INDUSTRIALIST? WELL, WHO’S HE BEEN STEALING FROM?”

At which point, someone in the crowd appealed for silence to allow ‘the Somalian pirate’ to have his say. And so began the case for Muslim/Israeli religion. Stood on a small soapbox, the gentleman from Somalia began to explain the origins of God and religion. Not long into his monologue, someone shouted to him, “ON A SCALE OF ONE TO TEN, JUST HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH?”

This was followed by an interjection by the man from Pakistan, to which the Speaker said,”Don’t listen to this man. He’s high. He smokes hashish.”

“I buy it from you, my friend,” was the Pakistani’s defence.

We moved along.

We stood and listened to a woman who was being heckled by someone who told her she knew nothing and that she never had anything to say. With spittle flying from her mouth, the speaker berated the heckler’s arrogance, told him that despite the fact that she had stood and spoken there for 20 years and he had stood there and listened, that he was fooling himself if he thought they knew each other or even had any kind of relationship. After five minutes of bickering, someone cried out: “What is your message?”

She told us that politics was finished, religion was finished and the world was finished. We could never know anything, except what we had been fed by the government and what they wanted us to know. And this wasn’t even the truth, but what the government wanted you to believe. She implored us to challenge facts and arrive at our conclusions of what we might discover to be our own truth.

“It’s like if you went to court, and the judge looked at the prosecuted and declared that he didn’t like the look of the guy, so ordered him to be hanged, without hearing the cases for and against him. So it is with the truth – you can’t just make a decision without hearing pros and cons.”

One short-sighted heckler then entered the fray: “What kind of judge is that who makes a decision because of the way the guy looks? That’s a dictatorship.”

We jogged along.

Mr Conservative stood and addressed a small crowd about the myth of the New Society. I wasn’t quite sure of the point he was making, but he talked about the Occupy London protest being meaningless, because the protesters were doing nothing and offering nothing.

“It’s like the media. They go there and they interview the first person they see and they learn nothing. It’s like they get to Westminster, and they think, ‘What shall we do now? I know, let’s go to St Paul’s and do a story about Occupy London’. So they go there, interview the first person they see, post their story and go home to sleep. Job done. Why? Because they’re LAZY!”

After hearing some gratuitous pot shots at political parties, we moved on.

After a short stay listening to a quietly-spoken gentleman promoting the value of the Catholic Church, we stood in the midst of the Sunday afternoon joggers, cyclists, walkers, rollerbladers, buggy-pushers, speakers, hecklers, tourists, photographers, onlookers and students in the beautiful, chilly blue, thin sunshine of a Sunday afternoon in central London.

Two young men approached my son and asked if he’d like to share a few thoughts for a radio programme they were recording. He said to them, “Are you asking me because I’m the first person you saw? Were you in Hyde Park, knowing that you needed to do a programme and not sure what to talk about? So you came to ask me what I thought, so you could go home and go to sleep. Why? Because you’re LAZY!”

Actually, my son just politely declined. Mind the gap between the truth and my imagination.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Let’s eat cake

It was quite uncanny. Oxford Street was pumping. It seemed that everyone in London chose to do their Christmas shopping yesterday. And they chose Oxford Street. Two minutes away from the mayhem, we found an oasis that made my heart smile: Maison Bertaux.

We’d walked from the busy high street in central London towards Soho. We walked through Soho Square and a block down from the Square, we found this place:

Maison Bertaux - an original in the heart of Soho

We’d talked about stopping somewhere for coffee and I insisted we try this place – it just looked, well, so un-high street.  It looked like a place that had a story to tell. We weren’t disappointed.

This is what we found when we stepped inside.

A little shop of edible treasures
Everything looks like it has a story to tell
Pink scarves and retro wall-lamps

I didn’t know where to look first – at the ornaments, at the writing on the mirrors, at the decor, at the newspaper clipping of Alexander McQueen, at the cakes, the cheeky meringue snowmen with their chocolate-roll sleighs … then we were asked what we wanted to order. I asked for a filter coffee and a cappuccino and was offered the only two coffees they have on offer: a café noir with milk and a café au lait. Being Christmas, we thought it would be rude not to try the homemade mince pies too.

We sat down at one of two tables in the small downstairs area and waited for our order.

I couldn’t stop staring at everything. One of the waiting staff noticed my curiosity.

“There’s so much to look at,” I said.

He said the place was full of stuff from the 140 years the cake shop had existed.

An old photo of the newly-opened Maison Bertaux

“Not sure if you can tell that we have our Christmas decorations up, or not,” he said, wryly.

We found our answer when we spotted a small Christmas tree on the piano.

Near to the Christmas tree was a signed copy of Noel Fielding’s book Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton. A note stuck to the wall suggested there were more where that one came from. Noel is not only a genius, off-beat comedian, but also a regular here.

We chatted to one of the two sisters who own the cake shop. The younger sister of ‘a cross between Margaret Rutherford and Joan of Arc’, she told us the shop had remained the same since its establishment in 1871 – the same cake recipes, everything made fresh – every day – on the premises. She called it not only the oldest cake shop in the country, but also ‘the Ivy of cake shops’ in London, in that it attracts artists, actors and other real celebrities.

“It gets completely mental upstairs sometimes,” she said, as she rattled off names of people who frequent the cake shop.

The old stucco’d walls are grubby and absolutely, antiquely beautiful. The glass shelves behind the counter boast – among ornaments, bottles, scarves and a giant chocolate éclair ornament – a photograph of the shop in its early days. The glass shelves in the window groan with the most beautiful, creative and mouth-watering delights you care to imagine. A stream of white-capped chefs marched through from the kitchen to present their handiwork for the window for the day: trays of fresh-fruit tarts, marzipan figs, gateaux saint-honore, croissants, cakes, éclairs and ‘wormy pies’ (meringues with endless coils of cream). Equally, deliveries of sacks of flour arrived while we were there. It is a working kitchen, for sure.

A taste of Maison Bertaux specialities

We were told about the art on display upstairs. I went to have a quick look at it, but didn’t spend much time as I wanted to leave the few customers up there to enjoy their coffee and books in peace. I also made a quick stop in the ‘wee wee hut’; I was amused and delighted to see the toilet flushed with an ancient pull-chain.

I don’t think much has changed in this gorgeous tea shop since it was established by French communards in 1871. In today’s world of overpriced paper cups filled with have-a-nice-day coffees, and plates filled with cardboard pastries, I was completely entranced by this original gem. So close to the hubbub of the high street yet so far removed in every possible way.

It was pricey, yes, but when you step into an era of genuine tasty quality, creativity and originality in a room full of chaotic, colourful history – what else could you expect? It’s our new favourite tea shop. In the whole world.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

An evening in Coolsville

We spent yesterday evening in Coolsville, with the Duchess herself. She sang her way through the soundtrack to my student days in the early 1980s; listening to classic Rickie Lee Jones live was another awesome, red box experience.

The Duchess of Coolsville, 57, skipped on to the Royal Festival Hall’s stage in trademark brown beret and half an hour late for her Pirates concert. According to the Southbank Centre preview, the queen of pop/jazz/country/soul/R&B/blues/you-name-it, with a career spanning 30 years, maintains an unwavering cool despite a historically difficult personal life which has seen her battle and overcome broken hearts and drug addiction. Her concert featured tracks from her two most successful LPs, Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates, in her only stop in the UK before heading to Paris and Bilbao to round off her short European tour.

She opened with Danny’s All Star Joint to thunderous applause, and went on to dance with her beret through After Hours (12 bars past midnight). Spent, she abandoned her beret along with her water bottle, on the piano.

Rickie Lee Jones is not as tall as I would have imagined. I loved watching her bob and weave around the microphone with, what looked to me like awe and fear, and always, always needing the sound to be perfect.

The audience went crazy to hear the opening bars of Chuck E’s in Love, which the Duchess delivered to perfection before moving into a self-conscious, exquisitely delicate and vulnerable, arms-folded version of Company. A beautiful Easy Money prefaced her move to the piano, where she played and sang for the next hour. Living it Up was followed by a call from Rickie to ‘play some more happy songs’, as she moved on to the hauntingly beautiful clarinet-soloed Skeletons.

Ms Jones’ band is filled with outstanding musicians: a crazy talented lead guitarist, a Duke of Coolsville on bass, a keyboard (piano and Hammond organ) magician, an astounding drummer and ridiculously brilliant three-piece horn section of saxophone/clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Each artist had their moment in the spotlight to share their beautiful talent.

After We Belong Together, Rickie Lee apologised for being late.

“Did you forgive me yet for coming on late? I don’t have any reason, except I wasn’t ready. In so many ways,” she said ironically before moving on to Lucky Guy, filled with pretty, pretty Hammond organ solos. On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 was followed by an emotional, tear-filled outpouring of Coolsville.

The Duchess followed her heart rather than the setlist, which kept the band watching her closely and the setlist frequently being replaced.

She moved on to Pirates and Traces of the Western Slopes before a funky Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking. Guitar in hand, Ms Jones talked of her first trip to London in 1979 and how everything about the city ‘creeped her out’ as she walked through the ‘emotional chasm of heroine withdrawal. Everything was different, from having only one television channel (‘that played dogs chasing sheep’), to the light switches, to waking up at 3am and everyone was asleep’.

As an apology for that story, she sang a bonus number, a pure-Rickie Lee version of On the Street Where You Live. The Weasel and the White Boy’s Cool rocked the most insane lead guitar solo before Night Train, Young Blood, Last Chance Texaco and After Hours.

Ms Jones wept as she talked of the ‘supreme peace that found me, unexpectedly, on this Pirates tour’. She thought it would be a nightmare, reliving the difficult times through Pirates, but found that she can now ‘go home and sleep at night’.

With emotion and gratitude, she sang the closing number The Returns, leaving us all with a hope that the Duchess of Coolsville will be back. Two hours of pure Rickie Lee Jones magic. Catharsis rocks.

Sunshine signing off for today!

In step with today

I don’t know what it is about some days. It’s like they get stuck under my shoe, and no matter how I try, I can’t shake them loose. With every step I tramp awkwardly and feel, for the most part, a little off balance.

I had such a day today.  To say it was frustrating is like saying that Madonna is quite rich. At midday, I decided to try and walk it off. My plan was to take my lunch and go and eat it down by the River Thames.

Having bought my lunch, I walked along a lovely piazza lined by restaurants. I got distracted by a small band setting themselves up in the shade of a leafy plain tree. I sat down in that same shade, and waited to see what would happen next. And the band began to play.

Adam was the lead singer and guitarist; a kind of curly-haired Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen on Prozac; slow and poetic, but not as depressing as he could be. He was joined by a violinist and double bass player, and together they played some really interesting, original music.

Soon after I sat down, a young woman sitting next to me lit herself a rolled “cigarette”. I use the word loosely. She took a drag, stood up and put the rollie down where she’d been sitting and disappeared. I watched her disappear out of view, and wondered if I was part of a social experiment. I thought maybe someone was about to come and have a second drag of it, but no. About five minutes later, the young woman returned with a coffee in her hand. Of course.

Next, I saw another young woman, dressed in a bright yellow, lycra, polka dot body suit. She walked past, not without some sniggering from the construction workers sitting near me.  As I looked around for a camera – surely a candid camera moment? – I saw another young woman emerge from the opposite direction on an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket in the front. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted on top, like an old-fashioned washerwoman. She stopped her bike for a short while and stood and watched and listened. She then rode off, with her furry toy penguin strapped in as a pillion passenger.

Adam continued to pour his heart out into the piazza, to very little attention from the lunching majority walking by, or sitting chatting at the local restaurants. After one lively-ish song, a friend of Adam’s shouted out that his last song had sounded “quite happy”. Adam apologised.

Oh, and a chalkboard next to the small wooden stage from which Adam and band played held a stern warning: “No stage diving”.

I sat a bit longer and soaked everything in. I looked at the beautiful late-autumn-sunny London day. The sky was blue, the sun was streaming through the green leaves of the trees, and what I was experiencing could not have been happening anywhere but London. The city that does random, bizarre, funny, unique like no place I’ve known before. I found sunshine in my otherwise grey day, and I remembered the joy of a city such as this.

I walked back to my office. Funny, there was no longer anything under my shoe.

Sunshine signing off for today!

These are the good times

Having lived in London for two years, it was only last week that we experienced our first open-air concert in the rain. BBC Radio 2’s annual music festival in Hyde Park is a wonderful day’s entertainment. Add four seasons into that day, and I bid you welcome to British autumn.

Hyde Park’s summer season of open-air concerts ends with this one. It’s kind of ‘goodbye open air concerts; goodbye summer; hello any season you like, all at once’.

It was a huge line-up that we bought tickets to see. Billed by BBC Radio 2 as ‘a festival in a day’, the programme ran from 3.30pm to 10pm (‘any later and we’ll keep the Queen awake!’), packed in a whopping 12 artists in a row and 40,000 people into the park. The rain came and went, as did the sunshine and wind. The evening ended with a full-moon rising, blurred behind the clouds.

The likes of ’70s African American disco and R&B band, Chic, played numbers from our disco days:

Chic - who brought Le Freak to the world in 1978

Alabama-born duo, The Pierces, brought new American sounds into the mix, along with dazzlingly popular UK band Take That’s Gary Barlow. Add in some Will Young, James Blunt, Imelda May, Lenny Kravitz, Jonathan Jeremiah, Caro Emerald, Beverley Knight, Bellowhead and Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and a rare live performance from Sandy Shaw, and you have a spectacular afternoon of music and entertainment.

A number of the artists were new discoveries for us: Jonathan Jeremiah with his mesmerising ‘Lost’.

Jonathan Jeremiah - I just loved his 'Lost'. What a great find.

Imelda May’s contemporary rockabilly beat seriously rocked, and I was entranced with her playing of the bodhrán (Irish frame drum), not to mention her unique style and talent.

Imelda May - a great Irish rockabilly star

British talent is always popular in London. Will Young was ill and without much of a voice, disappointingly, but he did his best; he even tried miming to one of his songs. That wasn’t such a great idea. James Blunt rocked the park, much to my surprise, and I didn’t see his jumping-on-to-the-piano dramatics coming at all. Not at all.

Beverley Knight brought rocking soul to the stage, while Bellowhead – with their 11-piece band of piano accordion, banjo, mandolin, cello, fiddles, trombone, saxophone and tuba – brought a kind of medieval story-telling into the mix. I really loved them.

Caro Emerald, from Holland, was another new and lovely voice to hear, while Lenny Kravitz – in his trademark shades – was just incurably cool.

Lenny Kravitz is too smooth. And he does move

Ruby Turner filled the park with her big voice and rousing Infatuation and Moving out of the Cold, with sensational backing from Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Backing singer, Louise Marshall, also grabbed the mic and the audience’s attention; she’s another one to watch.

Gary Barlow stood in for headline act, Lionel Ritchie, who was either ill or busy with a new album, or both. Gary is currently heading the judging panel on the new season of X Factor and, if the contestants represent a chunk of the UK population, a lot of women on this island are in love with Gary Barlow. He couldn’t have been better received.

Gary Barlow. Much-loved British artist

I have to say, though, that my favourite favourite of the whole day might not be what you’d expect. Contemporary music, new music, rockabilly, heart throbness, coolness, retro beat, story-telling and miming aside; this grand lady floated on to the stage in sparkly short pants, fringed top and shining black locks. With long beautiful legs that flowed all the way to the ground and into two bare feet, her two songs took me back to a childhood in dusty Zambia, where – despite being light years behind the rest of the world – we still knew iconic pop music when we heard it. Even if we were only six.

Here’s the original version of one of Sandy Shaw’s two songs:

Rain, sunshine, wind and many drunken revellers notwithstanding, our red box got richer by two more tickets. And, in the words of Sandy Shaw’s second number last Sunday, there’s Always something there to remind me.

Sandy Shaw - on the soundtrack of my childhood - performing here with crazy-talented Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra
If you look beyond the brollies, you can see Will Young

Sunshine signing off for today!

Big day in Little Venice

Our exploration of this crowded city continued yesterday and took us to an area in the west of the city, known as Little Venice. In glorious late summer sunshine, we walked along the edge of this junction of two canals and marvelled again at a hidden treasure presented to us by the Big Smoke.

Little Venice, the junction of Regent's Canal and the Grand Union Canal

We travelled along the Bakerloo line as far as Warwick Avenue – yes, the very title of a song by Welsh singer, Duffy – and followed the finger boards to Little Venice in south Maida Vale. According to Wikipedia, the area is believed to have been so named by the English poet, Robert Browning, who lived in the area from 1862 to 1887. Browning’s Pool (pictured above), the junction of Regent’s Canal and the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal, bears further testimony to the influence of the poet in this area.

Many lovely houseboats line the length of the canal

We walked along the perimeter of the junction’s triangle, originally known as Paddington Broadwater when the junction was created in the 1810s, and enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch in Rembrandt Gardens. Artists’ studios on the east side of Browning’s Pool were demolished and replaced by this small park in 1975, so named to commemorate the 700thanniversary of the founding of Amsterdam, the ‘Venice of the North’.

These two older gentlemen enjoyed the late summer sunshine so much they had a little snooze in it!

Apart from having been home to Browning, Little Venice has been home to short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, playwright Christopher Fry, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and Icelandic singer Bjork.  It is also home to the Canal Cafe Theatre, the Puppet Theatre Barge and the Waterside Cafe.

The Waterside Cafe - we had an ice-cream here!

After our picnic lunch, we took the waterbus – a long boat – from Little Venice, eastwards around Regent’s Park, and on to our final destination of Camden Town. A delightful crew of a Scotsman and an Englishman instructed us in the health and safety guidelines for climbing safely into the boat, and then assured us that any marriages officiated by the captain on the 50 minute journey would only last for the duration of the journey. Just as well; the narrow seats were well uncomfortable.

Our boat ride along the canal took us through the Maida Vale tunnel, a 250 metre long tunnel built in 1812. Architecture that ranged from the majestic to the common lined the canal as we wove our way past the London Zoo through to the heaving market town of Camden.

Waterbuses go up and down the canal at regular intervals. A great idea for special occasions, as this 'hen do' indicates!

Another outstanding day in this beautiful city of surprises.

Sunshine signing off for today!