Circolombia, Underbelly Festival, Southbank, London

 

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This photo is courtesy of @tcspr.

 

Let’s start with the Underbelly Festival itself. Over the past 10 years this has become a symbol of summer on the Southbank. Each year it seems to get bigger and last longer. It started as an event around a giant inflatable purple cow in a coach park on Belvedere Road and used to be called Udderbelly. Now the cow appears to have gone (surely I didn’t miss it?!) but it has two covered performance spaces, at least four bars, street food stalls, plenty of outdoor seating and it lasts half the year – from early April until late September.

The shows consist of comedy, circus, music and cabaret, usually with a couple of silent discos thrown in through the season. The content varies from full on family entertainment to risqué burlesque. The tickets are generally pretty cheap for central London although many of the shows get booked up very quickly. You can just go in to use the bars and seating for free though, so its a nice place to meet friends even if you are not seeing a show – think Box Park without the claustrophobia of the box!

Circolombia are a  fourteen strong circus/dance/music troupe from Colombia and the show they present is part concert, part circus. They sing, they dance, they rap and they display awesome tumbling skills and wonderful aerial work. It all works very well together and you can see why they have built a big international reputation from their global tours. The music enhances the atmosphere for the circus work and you can feel the tension rise when the place quietens for a particularly daring routine.

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The routines are jaw dropping. The tumbling skills are immense, from rolling under and over a see-saw as it rocks, to throwing a performer onto the shoulders of another person who is already balanced on the shoulders of a third. There is one where one performer does acrobatics inside a circular frame, while that frame is balanced on the forehead of a man below.

The aerial feats are equally amazing, varying from solo high rope tumbling to double acrobatics with both people suspended by just a rope around the neck of one of them. At one point a performer is lifted high into the air by a ribbon held in his teeth, the person lifting him is suspended by her legs and carrying that ribbon by her teeth. One cannot help but be moved by both their strength and their trust.

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The show is short, at only an hour long, and the quality is of the highest order, there is no filler here, there were audible gasps from the audience throughout the show. I hope the acts are not actually as risky as they make them appear, because there is a sense of jeopardy, watching them in such a small space, you are aware that these are real people, taking real risks and this adds to the intensity of the performance.

Circolombia at the Underbelly Festival is a fantastic, exciting evening out and they have a number of dates here before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival in August. If you are unable to catch them here – or there, I urge you to look out for them, in case they come to a venue near you.

MOD Pizza, Irving Street, Leicester Square, London WC2

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MOD Pizza is a chain of restaurants that has been in the USA for some years now, it is relatively new to the UK, this is the first one in London. MOD stands for Made On Demand, it is a clever concept – we might be looking at the new McDonalds here.  It is also great value, in fact for  Central London it seems ridiculously cheap at £7.87 for an 11 inch pizza with unlimited toppings.

If you don’t like pizza, then this is probably not the place for you, it does pizza, salad… or pizza salad. However, by limiting their menu, they do what they do very well. You order the size of base that you want and then you move down the counter asking the server behind it to add ingredients to your pizza as they take your fancy as you see them. There is a surprising number of choices, there are six different base sauces from basic tomato, through barbecue to a garlic rub – and I guess you could have them all if you wished. There are also six different cheeses, including a dairy free vegan cheese (is it really cheese if its dairy free?), 8 different meat types (they calls anchovy a meat!) and about twenty other topping types. Then finish it off with swirls of pesto or glaze and add a choice of spices to the top.

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Then there is a quick opportunity to admire your creation, before they take it away for baking and five minutes later they bring the completed cooked pizza to your table. The first time I came, it was to a pizza party for about twenty five people and it was a very convivial evening. They are licensed to sell beer and wine, a pretty basic choice of each – but we are talking about a fast food type place here. It brings the American concept of unlimited soda fountain with it, the kids will love this, not only do they do the usual soft drinks, they also have three different types of home made lemonade. The original lemonade is wonderfully sharp, great on a warm day. The milk shakes are good too. If you have ordered too much and you are unable to finish, they also provide boxes for you take home what you can’t eat. I have to confess here that I am one of those (apparently disgusting) people who love cold pizza for breakfast!

MOD Pizza is an interesting new addition to the food offering in the centre of town, and although the competition here is tough, I think they have found a winning formula and we will see many more branches of this chain here in the UK before too long.

 

 

 

Cinnamon Kitchen, Battersea Power Station, London SW11

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Cinnamon Kitchen has taken the plunge and become an early adopter in the big new housing development that Battersea Power Station is about to become. This is Vivek Singh’s sixth restaurant and it is tucked under the railway arches, less than 50 metres away from the Thames.

The décor is pared back and bright. The attractive brickwork of the arches has been left exposed and a huge glass front allows light to fill the room on a sunny afternoon. There are rows of tables outside on the traffic free front pathway. The kitchen is a large open space at the rear of the room and there is a raised glassed mezzanine into the top of the arch holding a few tables which could be used for a private party.

We had the tasting menu, which was ideal for a first time visit. The quality of the food is high. From the starters, the sea bream ceviche is delicious, with a lovely texture to the fish and a warm sharp bite to the marinade. The avocado hummus is also really good, fruity and creamy. The spicier dishes are Vegetable Bhajis and the Keema Litti – which is a lamb doughball, this was served with anchovy butter.

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From the main courses, the tandoori chicken is moist and tender with light heat from the relatively mild chillies. The Kale and Quinoa koftas are spicy and crisp, the fiery Rajasthan Lamb is hot, spicy and cooked to perfection.  The accompanying dhal has a nicely smoked flavour that is difficult to pinpoint, but delicious nevertheless.

The service is very good, our waiter almost too attentive. Antal, the maître d’ was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in our opinion of the dishes. The wine list is not very long but has a broad selection, if a little on the pricey side. We tried two different cocktails and both were okay, they were good quality but understated. They also have a reasonable selection of beers, four bottled and one draught.

There is surprisingly little noise from the trains passing overhead, it is easily masked by the music, which is not at a level that is intrusive to conversation. The restaurant itself is an attractive space to spend an evening and, on warm summer evenings, it will be pleasant to take ones coffee and digestifs outside to watch the river roll by. Currently, the infrastructure of the Battersea Power Station is still coming together and the restaurant is not easy to find, however I recommend that you take this opportunity to eat here, because once this development is completed this will be a hugely popular place to eat and I suspect that, despite its size, tables will be hard to come by.

The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

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First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

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I guess that I had better begin by explaining where I am on the Hogwarts spectrum. I enjoy the Harry Potter franchise. I read the first three books and really liked them. I have watched all the films, including the fantastic beasts one, although I couldn’t say exactly what happened in which film, especially the ones towards the end of the series. So, I know all the main characters pretty well, but I’m not a person you would invite to be on your team in the Harry Potter trivia quiz.

This play is written by Jack Thorne, although it is based on a story by him, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. However, it does really feel like it is written by JK Rowling because it is, first and foremost, a really good story and she does know how to construct a good story. I’m not too sure why it is separated into two plays, because it is a single adventure and I suspect that if you were to just see part two, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at the beginning.  So, if you are planning to book, do see both parts and do see them in the correct order. Never have I been to the theatre and been warned so often about revealing the plot; luckily, I prefer leaving the storytelling to the playwright so rarely reveal plot twists in a review.

The story is great, not particularly complicated or cutting edge, but it is told in convincing detail over the course of five and a half hours. We know most of the main characters already, having lived through their adolescence, and I have to say it is interesting to see them all fully grown up with children of their own. The actors playing these parts have a tough job, taking over characters with whom we are already very familiar, but needing to bring their own ethos to the role. They all cope admirably with this challenge, Rakie Ayola and Jamie Glover are good as Hermione and Harry. I loved the reimagining of Ron Weasley; Thomas Aldridge’s character probably did have a little more of a free rein for development given his incidental part in the story, but it is very funny and he delivers it well. The new people are really the stars in this show, Theo Ancient is very good as Albus Severus Potter and Samuel Blenkin is fantastic as Scorpius Malfoy. April Hughes has a wonderful, scene stealing cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

The magic and special effects are spectacular, it is one thing seeing them on film as we are used to, but seeing them around you in the theatre really adds to the excitement. The effects are constant throughout the show and they are all top notch. The sets are clever and engaging, there is always something new to attract your attention, not an easy achievement over the course of such a long play. The choreography felt clunky at first, with too many flourishes, but you come to realise that this is necessary to help the magic along, and by the end I was full of admiration for the choreographer – with a company of 43 people, military precision must have been crucial.

These were the most expensive tickets I have ever bought, so it needed to be good, but I have to say that even so, I still feel that they were good value for money.

 

 

 

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

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Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

Nightfall, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Nightfall is a play by Barney Norris, who has already written many plays and books, winning the Critic’s Circle Award for most promising playwright along the way. From this production, you can see that he has a talent for writing dialogue. It has a realistic feel and there are some lovely moments of insight. However, this is a four hander and all of the characters don’t feel fully developed. The two women in particular are caricatures who, despite the difficulties they battle through, one does not feel much empathy for. The storyline has many twists, some very dramatic, but I felt that we were told about them, then they were forgotten about and had little effect on the characters’ actions.

Having said that, there are positives, the set is amazing and uses the modern stage to its best effect. The Bridge Theatre is a new theatre, less than a year old, and it is beautiful. Bigger than I expected, although it holds almost 1000 people, the design is such that I cannot imaging that there is single restricted view seat in the whole auditorium. The stage area itself is very versatile, it would not have been possible to have a set of this design in a more traditional theatre. I loved the lighting too, it is set outdoors and sunsets and sunrises are done beautifully. Cars arriving and leaving at night were also lit very cleverly.

Ukweli Roach puts in a great performance as Pete. Sion Daniel Young is also good as Ryan and there was an undercurrent of chemistry between the two characters that felt undeveloped. It is interesting to see that one of Barney Norris’ non fiction books is about the theatre of Peter Gill, because there were times when I was reminded of The York Realist.

Overall, although I enjoyed listening to them talk for the two hours, I did not feel that there was any narrative arc or that any of the characters had moved on over the course of the play. Perhaps  the type of nostalgia he was trying to evoke would have been easier to attain if it had not been set in the present, or perhaps it is one of those plays whose real depth will not be apparent until some years after writing.