Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

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The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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The Ferryman is a kitchen sink drama with an epic storyline. Apart from the prologue, it is totally set in the large kitchen of a family farmhouse outside Derry. The action is a day and a half in the lives of the extended family that resides there. But, the themes are huge, its about family and war, about love and loyalty, about freedom fighting and terrorism, and it tells these stories through short interwoven family interactions that come and go throughout the play that gradually meld together to make a complex tapestry.

Jez Butterworth has been spoken of as one of the best writers around today, and with  The Ferryman he delivers. The language and the narrative are superlative, it is the writing of someone both confident and ambitious. He is brave to wind traditional songs and ancient stories through the dialogue and he is talented pull it off so well.

The direction is awesome, there are 17 characters in this play, without counting the live goose, rabbit or the baby. Just moving them all around the stage must have been a major task but, Sam Mendes makes the whole setting feel real,  natural and, even simple.

The cast is also fabulous, lots of lovely performances from so many different actors. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly are great as Quinn and Caitlin, but right through the cast there were great turns. I loved Rob Malone as the troubled Oisin. Brid Brennan had a scene stealing part as Aunt Maggie Faraway and she played it perfectly. Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer are wonderful as Aunt Patricia and Uncle Pat.

As you can tell, I loved this show. I have to finish because I am about to run out of superlatives. This is a play that will become a classic piece of literature that will be on school curricula.

 

 

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.

 

Cannon

Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

Vases

A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

Rembrandt, Susanna van Collen and Anna
Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Motel One Manchester-Piccadilly, Manchester

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Motel One is about as handy as you can get if you arrive in Manchester by train. It is directly across the road from Piccadilly train station. The rooms are quite small, but they are cleverly laid out and well appointed. The windows are big, so even on a grey day the room feels bright. The bathrooms are new and modern and the shower is excellent. The bed is big and comfortable, all rooms have free wi-fi that is efficient, the code only works for 3 items though – so if you are as gadget fuelled as we are, you may have to sweet talk the reception staff into giving you more codes.  Motel One is German hotel brand and the TV comes with many European channels as standard.

The breakfast is good, but continental only, it is not included in the price and not particularly great value in a part of town that is full of great brunch venues. Head to Hilton Street which is less than a ten minute walk away and has a number of interesting cafes, including  The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester which we really liked.

Also, you need to be aware that, despite its name, Motel One, does not have a car park, so you are at the mercy of private car parks if you have driven to Manchester and parking in town is not cheap. Having said that, central Manchester is a great city to walk around and public transport is pretty good, so a car would not be essential for your time here.

The bar on the ground floor is decorated in a modern European style; flash furniture and muted colours, pleasant enough to sit and have a drink in while waiting for friends. The music is at a nice level for conversation and they have pleasant bar staff.

Overall, Motel One Piccadilly is a very good budget hotel, right in the heart of town and I will happily stay here again next time I come to Manchester.

The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.

Southwark Cathedral, London SE1

 

Wooden effigy of Unknown Knight
Reputedly the oldest wooden effigy in Britain

 

Literally a few steps away from the hustle of Borough Market is the calm oasis of Southwark Cathedral. It is a wonderful mixture of old and new. It contains a wooden effigy of a knight from the 13th Century, reputedly the oldest in Britain and its Northern cloister was opened in 2001 by Nelson Mandela.

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There are monuments and memorials from many time periods in between. There is a stained glass window and bas-relief dedicated to Shakespeare, his brother Edmund is buried here. The Cathedral is on the South Bank of the Thames where many of the theatres used to be in Shakespeare’s time.

 

Tomb of Thomas Gower
Tomb of Thomas Gower

 

There are tombs of quite different types, from the multi-coloured wooden one of the poet, Thomas Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, to the more austere and eerie one of Thomas Cure, a 16th Century parliamentarian.

 

Thomas Cure
Tomb of Thomas Cure

 

There are memorials to those who lost their lives in both the first and second world wars, victims of the Marchioness sinking in 1986 and Isabella Gilmore, the first deaconess of Southwark. There are also monuments to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Deaconess memorial

While you are here don’t forget to look at the fixtures and fittings in the building. The black marble font and outrageously ornate wooden cover, at the nave of the church is one highlight, the eagle lectern, near the altar is another.

Lectern

Added to all this is the architectural splendour of the Cathedral. There are details here from a whole range of different engineering periods. The vaulted ceilings in the main church are beautiful, but the marble bricked ceilings in the naves are equally so.

Sculpture
Walk through the church into the garden and you can sit in verdant peace, with the noise of the market in the background. There are a couple of unusual sculptures here, but the flowers are beautiful. An often overlooked gem in the heart of tourist London, just the place to dip in to, if you feel the need to step out of the boisterous city for a quiet break.

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Apologia, Trafalgar Studios, London

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I went to the first night of the previews. I really enjoyed it. The action takes place over an evening birthday party and the morning after. It was a little slow to get started but after that, the first act is good; the script is funny, arch and sharp. It appears to be a play about nostalgia for the idealism of the 1960s and children with abandonment issues. However, the second act is transformative, I love how it turns your perspective on its head, we get to know the characters better and see their motivation differently. The play is really about women’s place in society, whether this has changed over the past 50 years and about the price people are willing to pay for attempting to bring about change.

The direction is simple, Jamie Lloyd lets the words speak for themselves. The set is clever, the stage is framed like a picture or perhaps the old photograph given as a birthday gift.  The whole cast is good, but this play is really about the women, Laura Carmichael and Freema Agyeman are both outstanding and Stockard Channing is amazing.

The writing is great and I will be looking out for other plays by Alexi Kaye Campbell. I guess there will be a few tweaks before the general opening, but it got a full standing ovation on the night I went. I hope the critics like it as much as I did and that Apologia is a huge success.