Tag Archives: theatre

At the National Theatre: “Hadestown”

Back in November, my parents flew over to London for the long Thanksgiving weekend. They were keen to go see a show while in town, and Monday night was the most convenient for going out. A musical called Hadestown was on at the National Theatre and it sounded quirky: jazz-folk music, based on two Greek myths, written and directed by women. As both shows F and I have seen at the National Theatre were excellent, I thought we’d give it a go!

“Hadestown” set at the National Theatre

And we were glad we did.

Intertwining the Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/Persephone myths, Hadestown brings us to the modern-day industrial in what could be a southern railway town / New Orleans piano bar. In addition to the four protagonists, other characters from Greek myth are in attendance: Hermes, messenger god, narrates much of the story; and the Fates ever weave around the characters, cajoling and tempting them.

Speaking of the Fates, I think they get some of the best music in the show, with hints of Bossa Nova and tight, edgy but round harmonies. Check this one out:

In other music, the song “Why We Build The Wall,” set as a kind of call-and-response reminiscent of the Old South, is powerful and chillingly relevant to today’s politics. Eva Noblezada, as Eurydice, has a great voice. I was less impressed by Orpheus’ solos, but I think that’s because the character’s musical style is quite different from the rest of the show. It’s more folksy, and reminds me of the music from Once, contrasting – probably on purpose – with the jazzier ensemble pieces.

Final verdict: Hadestown, while sometimes jumpy in narrative, is a fantastic show. The music is jazzy, bluesy, folksy, and above all, catchy. Some tunes and themes resonate heavily with today’s political environment. It was also great to see such a diverse cast, with plenty of talent to go around. Highly recommended!

Of course, an evening out on the Southbank isn’t complete without taking in the London lights from Waterloo Bridge. London really is a magical place.

 


Out & About in London – October 2016

My parents visited F and me in London for five days this month. Luckily, their visit coincided with both a chorus concert and Half Term, which meant no teaching duties for me and so the ability to take a few days off work. It was fun to be a bit of a tourist around London for a few days — I hadn’t done that in a while. Here’s what we got up to, including pictures.

Bletchley Park

A co-worker of mine recommended visiting Bletchley Park as a nice day trip outside of London. My parents wanted to get out of the city for a day, and it turned out that Bletchley Park was an easy train ride away from Euston Station. In case you don’t know, Bletchley Park is where the British Government Code and Cipher School (CG&CS) set up their codebreaking endeavors during World War II. CG&CS recruited bright young minds from Oxford and Cambridge to work machines, translate, and cipher/encipher/decipher enemy codes, the most famous of which being the Enigma code. Alan Turing, perhaps made better known recently by the movie The Imitation Game, led a team in developing the Bombe Machine to help crack the Enigma code.

Bletchley Park is centered around a mansion on lovely grounds surrounded by lots of “huts,” where various teams were set up to work on codebreaking projects. It was a lovely day when we went, which made for pleasant wandering in and out of huts and learning about what went on at Bletchley Park. There’s also a very detailed museum, which we didn’t spend much time in, having already become saturated by the information in the mansion and huts. It was a nice and informative day out and I’d recommend it.

Dinner at Ottolenghi Islington

Eating at Ottolenghi has been near the top of my “to eat in London” list for a while. We’ve got one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks — Plenty, or Genussvoll vegetarisch in our German version — that I’ve enjoyed using at times. A few friends recommended the Islington restaurant, and my parents, who love trying new restaurants, were game!

Ottolenghi Islington has cold salads and desserts in the front window and operates a bustling (upscale) takeaway business. The restaurant consists of two long, communal tables and a handful of small two-person tables. The decor is more modern than I expected, but I quite liked the simplicity with splashes of color. The menu consists of small plates that are conducive to sharing — I love this kind of eating, because I get to try a few bites of a lot of dishes! We ordered eight dishes for the four of us, which was plenty and allowed us to save room for the delicious desserts. Dinner highlights for me were: the beetroot and cumin mash, the cauliflower, the braised artichoke and fennel, the pork belly, and the octopus. The almond financier cake for dessert was incredible.

National Portrait Gallery

Looking for something to do before afternoon tea (see below), I suggested to my parents that we pop into the National Portrait Gallery for an hour or so. I had never been there before, and to be honest was not sure I’d like it — how interesting can it be to look at a bunch of dead people’s painted portraits? Turns out, it’s fascinating! We stuck to the 19th and 20th century displays, and they did not disappoint. It was cool to see painted portraits of famous historical figures, from statesmen to the first woman admitted to the British Medical Association to authors like Dickens and Hardy. There was a small but powerful photograph of Virginia Woolf’s husband (or maybe father? I can’t remember) in the foreground with an out-of-focus but so obviously Virginia Woolf in the background. Wow.

My favorite part of the Portrait Gallery was a temporary exhibition, “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948.” It was incredibly moving to see such dignified, soulful photographs from the early-ish days of photography. There is something much deeper about photographic portraits from 100+ years ago: carefully composed poses and backdrops, and no cheesy smiles, as people had to hold poses for a long time for the exposure. It is a stunning exhibition and highly recommended.

Afternoon Tea at The Delaunay

My mom suggested that we go out for a proper afternoon tea, like we did a couple of years ago when my parents spent time in London. And who am I to refuse afternoon tea? I had The Delaunay on my list as a well-reviewed (but I can’t remember by whom!) and affordable afternoon tea spot. We each ordered the full Afternoon Tea — my dad and I with scones, and my mom with Gugelhupf (remember that from Bake Off last year?).

Two tea towers (what are they actually called?) arrived, chock full with sweets and savories. The tea also came with brilliant straining devices that had solid bottoms to catch drips when you put them back on the table. It’s the little things! I have a big sweet tooth, but surprisingly I ended up preferring the savories at The Delaunay. The smoked duck sandwich had a great blend of flavors, and I could have eaten five of the cheese puff/choux flatbread-like things sandwiched with cream cheese. The fruit scones were deliciously light and balanced. I found most of the cakes a bit too sweet, although the pistachio financier with poppy seeds and orange cream was really nice. The Delaunay’s afternoon tea selection was very generous, and the three of us agreed that next time we’d only get two full tea menus plus a couple of extra scones.

Wicked

In addition to afternoon tea and a day out of London, my parents wanted to see at least one theatre show. We settled on Wicked, the music of which I knew thanks to my Oberlin housemate Claire, who introduced me to the soundtrack in college. But I didn’t know the story that links the songs together (other than that it’s about the Wicked Witch of the West). 

Well, the musical was brilliant. Along with the hits like “Defying Gravity,” “No Good Deed,” and “For Good,” Wicked actually has a relatively complex plot with a good deal of character development and many messages about trust, friendship, love, and self-regard. The cast was great, with Suzie Mathers and Rachel Tucker more than living up to my expectations as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively. They had personality, depth, and great singing voices — I got chills more than a couple of times.


Birthday Wisdom 2016

Another year older, another birthday reflection post! I turned 28 this week and F baked me the best cake anyone has ever made me:

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Last year I wrote about completing an MA and DELTA and starting a new full-time job. I offered a word of wisdom on prioritizing and finding balance. This past year has tested those words of wisdom on more than one occasion, but I like to think I tried my best to stick to them.

Looking back on this year, I’m coming up on two years as an ESOL and Functional Skills English teacher to migrant women in a deprived area of east London. I’ve taken on responsibility as a line manager and am completing a leadership and management course through work to help me develop in those areas. Teaching continues to bring its joys and challenges; switching to a new exam board for our ESOL courses has helped our students’ achievement rates, but there are still kinks to work out. I have an incredible set of colleagues, inspirational women all.

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

This year was big because F and I got married! It felt like the right time. He proposed last summer on Cape Cod, a memorable and meaningful spot for my family and for us, with fond memories of cycling, swimming, running, pastry eating, and relaxing. We got married in Germany this April, in a small civil ceremony with parents by our sides.

This past year has also seen a good deal of choral singing, with highlights being Rachmaninov’s Vespers at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; Bach’s Mass in B minor; and even recording a Christmas CD. F and I saw Steven Isserlis in a solo recital and we attended a few other concerts, theatre and musical theatre productions. We must take advantage of London cultural life while we can!

Running and sport(s) have been up and down. I did run a 5k PR/PB last September  but slowed down after that, due to busyness and stress in other aspects of life. I’m currently focusing on rebuilding my running fitness base and starting to incorporate speedwork again. I also did my first multisport event this past year: a team duathlon! It was a blast and I could see myself doing more run-bike-run events in the future.

Recent political events in the UK/EU and the USA made me gravitate towards the following quote as my word of wisdom for this year:

We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign – and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us.

-Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, after the ‘Brexit’ vote

With that, I wish you all a tolerant year of unity.

At the National Theatre: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

On a recent Wednesday evening, F and I took a weeknight out to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre (NT). I had never been to the National Theatre but when I found out that they have £15 tickets to most shows — practically a steal in London — I jumped at the opportunity.

Aside from knowing the NT’s As You Like It production had gotten good reviews, I didn’t know what to expect of their production (would it be modern? Period?). I read As You Like It years ago so briefly refreshed my memory of the plot before the play started: essentially, the Duke gets overthrown and exiled, then his daughter Rosalind gets banished and so does young Orlando. Everyone ends up in a forest, there is some crossdressing and foolery, and all turns out well in the end.

The National Theatre’s production included an open office with computers, modern-leaning-corporate dress, and a brilliant set design to create the forest for the second half: the tables and chairs were attached in groups and lifted up into the rafters on cables to create obstacles and hiding places in the forest. Real people sat in high up in swings and the wings to create “live” forest sounds: hoots, howls, wind blowing, and more. There were also some great sheep.

As You Like It was such fun to experience. Seeing Shakespeare live brings so much more life to his words than just reading them on the page, and the actors did a wonderful job emphasizing the precision of Shakespeare’s language and turns of phrase. Rosalie Craig made feisty and fun Rosalind and was balanced by Patsy Ferran‘s Celia.

Although Rosalind and Celia shoulder much of the play’s plot, As You Like It is really an ensemble piece. There are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. There’s a bit of melancholy from Jacques. And there’s music! I had forgotten how much music is incorporated into Shakespeare’s comedies. The NT’s production of As You Like It did a wonderful job with the forest ballads, sung by an actor with a lovely, lilting tenor voice. The final scene was also largely sung and made for an enjoyable and happy end to a thought-provoking comedy.

I would highly recommend the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed live, and the comedies are accessible and fun for all. There is not a bad seat in the NT’s Olivier Theatre — our seats were in the very last row but because the theatre is sloped so steeply, we could see the entire stage without any heads blocking the view.

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At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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At the Theatre: English National Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance”

I grew up attending the occasional community theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the most memorable being HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. That’s partly why discount TimeOut London tickets to the English National Opera (ENO) production of The Pirates of Penzance caught my eye. Even better, the dates coincided with my parents’ visit to London last week. My parents always enjoy a bit of theatre and music — after all, they’re the ones who dragged me to those community productions as a kid — so I snapped up some Saturday matinee tickets for Pirates. As if I needed further incentive, I also hadn’t yet been to see the ENO. Here’s my mini review of the production.

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The ENO’s The Pirates of Penzance was hilarious and good fun all around. We all liked the colorful, minimalist stage set: bold orange, green, and blue sliding half-circles, stairs, and a half moon “ship” worked effectively and kept the focus on the acting and singing.

Vocally, Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stole the show. Her effortless runs, pure tone, and range were particularly evident in the first half’s “Poor Wandering One.” The female chorus — playing the Major General’s daughters — produced a lovely one-voiced sound, and the male choruses (the pirates and the constables) were also strong.

While the singing was solid all around, unfortunately Robert Murray’s acting as Frederic was flat and couldn’t match Boyle’s comic timing as Mabel. Luckily, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as the Sergeant of Police was spot-on and complete with a great Cornish accent; the character worked well alongside Rebecca de Pont Davies’ comically tragic Ruth.

David Parry led the orchestra well through the light and hummable score, although occasionally it took a few measures for the orchestra and singer(s) to settle into the same tempo.

I hadn’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since before my days of musicology courses in college. With a much greater knowledge of 19th-century opera, I really appreciated the parodies of Romantic opera that Gilbert and Sullivan slip into Pirates: the overdone melodrama, impossible-to-fulfill promises, and an improbably (but pleasingly) happy ending.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance makes for a hilarious, rollicking afternoon and I’d highly recommend that you see the ENO’s production before its run ends.

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At the Globe: “Much Ado About Nothing”

As a celebration for finishing our ‘Authors’ exams, Sarah and I headed down to Shakespeare’s Globe for a Thursday afternoon performance of the Bard’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

inside The Globe

inside The Globe

The performance was excellent. I hadn’t seen a Shakespeare play live since attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my grandma back in 2008, and this lived up to all expectations. I appreciated seeing Shakespeare performed in a simple and straightforward manner — as it should be. There were minimal props, simple costumes, and a cast of eight with almost everyone doubling parts. Now to the play:

First of all, Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious. The older I get the better I understand the language and get the jokes; Shakespeare really was a genius. This performance of Much Ado was very well-acted. Stand-outs for me were Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Simon Bubb as Benedick — they made a great pair, and Pallant and Bubb’s banter was brilliant to watch, as Beatrice and Benedick carry the bulk of the wit in the play. I — along with the audience — also took particular pleasure in Chris Starkle’s performance of Dogberry, for which he exchanged his serious Don John face for an aviator cap and Scottish accent. I was also surprisingly touched by the scene of Hero’s return — and Claudio’s surprise at it — near the end.

The production pleasingly and effectively incorporates a lot of music, too: the entire cast takes part, on accordion, tambourine, guitar…and they sing! (the well-known Shakespeare song, “Sigh no more, ladies.”) The early banquet/”revels” scene was done exceptionally well, with the music swelling and subsiding as sets of characters break away to converse.

Overall it was a top-notch performance. If you have a chance to see a Shakespeare play at the Globe, I highly recommend that you do it!

(Play aside, it was thrilling to sit inside a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, the theatre most associated with his works. As it rained on and off throughout the performance, Sarah and I were very glad to have splurged on proper seats.)

Have you seen a performance at the Globe? What did you think?

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At the theatre: “Twelve Angry Men”

Last night, F and I had a rare night out when we went to see “Twelve Angry Men” at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End. This was possible thanks to a TimeOut London 50% off tickets deal, so we had great seats for half the price.

London's Garrick Theatre

London’s Garrick Theatre

“Twelve Angry Men” is essentially an exact replica of the 1957 Henry Fonda film of the same name. I had seen the movie back in school and only remembered bits and pieces of it. The play, written by Reginald Rose, was absorbing and very well done. It’s a closed-room drama — with surprising and pleasing comic moments — focusing on the 12 jurors on a murder case who have to decide whether or not they think a black teenager killed his father; the boy’s life is in their hands. The initial vote is 11-to-1 for “guilty” — Juror 8, played brilliantly by Tom Conti, has “reasonable doubt” about the boy’s guilt. On this glimmer of doubt hangs the entire drama: the jurors must now discuss and re-discuss the details of the case in order to reach a unanimous decision.

“Twelve Angry Men” brings up many fascinating issues and moral dilemmas still relevant in today’s world. There is the notion of innocent until proven guilty — as Juror 8 points out, all you need to have is “reasonable doubt” that someone is not guilty. There are personal prejudices and experiences influencing the feelings and decisions of a few jurors. Slowly by slowly the case is unwound and we, along with the jurors, realize that the supposed murder is a lot more complicated than it first seemed. In fact, there is plenty of room for “reasonable doubt,” as many of the jurors soon begin to understand.

Robert Vaughan is excellent and understated as Juror 9, the oldest man in the room who remains seated for almost the entire show. Jeff Fahey and William Gaminara strongly portray two of the loudest proponents of the boy’s guilt — will they ever admit to having “reasonable doubt”?

The show effectively employs its simple set: the designers could easily have just plopped a big table down in a room and let it stay there. However, this big table was on a slowly rotating platform. So slowly did it rotate that I never actually caught it in motion; every once in a while I would notice that the table had turned again. This effect showed the passage of time — when the foreman’s seat was back where it started, the jury’s decision was made. The restroom on stage right was also used well, for more intimate and often insightful conversations between pairs and trios of jurors.

Overall, I highly recommend that you go see “Twelve Angry Men” if you have the chance. It is sharp, smart, thought-provoking, and very well-acted — everything that you might want in good theatre.

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At the theatre: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

When Sarah put forth the opportunity to get £16 tickets to see Olivier Award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeI jumped at it without second thought. This was the first theatah (say that with a fake British accent) experience in London for both of us, and it was totally worth it. Sarah wrote a blog post about our evening, too, which you can read here.

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah's phone

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah’s phone

On Thursday evening we joined the tourists, wanderers, and other theatre-goers around Leicester Square, Chinatown, and the aptly-named “Theatreland” (yes, it says that on the street sign). The Curious Incident is on at the Apollo Theatre, a tall space in which we sat in the next-to-last row. That didn’t really matter; we could see almost all of the stage with a nearly bird’s-eye view. I did miss a little of the dialogue here and there because of the distance, but overall it felt quite intimate.

The play was excellent. It’s based on the eponymous book by Mark Haddon, which Sarah has read and taught to high schoolers in the States (I haven’t read it but now I want to). Sarah said the book is narrated in the first person, as the thoughts of 15-year-old autistic math(s) genius Christopher Boone. But how does one make a play out of first person narration without turning the entire piece into a monologue? This production solves that problem by having Christopher’s tutor, Siobhan, read/narrate a good chunk of the material as he wrote it in a journal for her. While Siobhan narrates his thoughts, Christopher acts out what she reads.

One of the best-executed scenes, exemplary of the narrative technique, was when Christopher is imagining what it would be like to be an astronaut. Siobhan narrates while the stage darkens, “stars” come out, and Christopher is picked up, twisted, and turned by four people in a zero gravity-like state. The entire play used movement in innovative ways like this and I found this choreography very effective.

Along with its effective use of movement, this production used a minimal set really well. You can see what the stage looked like in my photo below — those white boxes were moved around to represent whatever they needed to (chairs, a TV, a fish tank, train seats), and white light was projected onto the stage to create outlines of houses and other spaces. There were also lots of little cubbies in the walls and floor that the characters would open to retrieve props.

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In addition to the set itself, the use lighting and sound effects worked well. When Christopher goes to the train station by himself for the first time, signs start scrolling and flashing across the stage as announcers’ voices read them out and layer on top of one another — it becomes a loud, chaotic confusion of lights and sounds. This, we understand, is what it feels like to be in autistic Christopher’s head: completely overwhelming and lost in a large, public space and surrounded by strangers. It was really effectively done.

Needless to say, The Curious Incident was extremely well-acted, particularly by Mike Noble as Christopher and Rakie Ayola as Siobhan. Noble, in particular, is entirely believable as Christopher, who wants to solve the mystery of “who killed Wellington [the dog]?” and who ends up unearthing a whole bunch of other mysteries in the process while ultimately just wanting to take his maths A-levels.

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Have you read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” or seen the play? Share your thoughts in the comments!