Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 2. Queen's State Apartments and King's State Apartments.

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Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne.  Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.

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These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious,  we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.

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The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.

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The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.

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The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.

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Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.

 

Mac & Wild, Great Titchfield Street, London W1W

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Mac & Wild is a restaurant that markets itself as serving the highest quality ingredients in its dishes – with a Scottish bias. It is known for its venison, steak and salmon. It is listed in the 2018 Michelin Guide and the Evening Standard named it in their “5 best places to eat game in London”. In 2016 it won the award for the best burger in the UK and it is in Time Out’s list of the best in London.
It opens for dinner at 5.30pm and we arrived, without a reservation, before 6. The place seemed pretty quiet, but they told us they would be able to squeeze us in at a table near the window. It was a damp autumnal Tuesday so I was a bit sceptical, but sure enough, by twenty past six they were turning people away and the restaurant was packed by the time we left at 7pm.
The room is long and narrow, decorated in a rustic style, with plain walls, rough hewn wooden tables and chairs and monochrome photos of Scottish countryside on the walls. There is a cellar room too, the same shape and decorated similarly. Even the bathrooms continue the rustic theme, with an old fashioned overhead ceramic cistern and a chain pull flush.
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The menu is basically steak, venison, salmon, cod or hamburger. The sizes and cuts of steak vary according to their stock, they have a list on the wall and cross them out as they are sold. There are vegetarian starters and one main course on the list.  We ordered the scotch egg and fish bites to start. The fish was delicious as was the egg. We were here late October and the Scotch egg came Halloween style – stuck with a syringe and oozing blood! Very funny, but possibly not for the fainthearted.
The burger has two patties, one beef and one venison, it comes with caramelised onion melted cheese and béarnaise. The taste is good, a nice meaty flavour, juicy and with a lovely texture. Be aware that it will come rare unless you ask for it to be well done, unusually they did not enquire when we ordered. The bun is a nice toasted brioche and the chips are skin on and tasty.
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It is served on a tin tray, with the chips in a small metal bucket by its side. For a restaurant that is proud of its Scottish heritage, a plate seems like an odd thing for it to forgo. At least it did come with a knife and fork. The lager was quite pricey, a hair under a fiver for a small tin. There are a number of wines served by the glass and the Pinot Grigio Rose was good. The service is excellent, the waiters are likeable and honest, they seem genuinely invested in making sure we had a good time.
All in all we had a really good experience. Mac & Wild are proud of the provenance of their ingredients and this shows in the quality of their burger.  If you plan on going, I would certainly recommend that you book – even as we left there was a couple standing outside in the drizzle waiting for us to pay the bill, so they could have our table.
 

Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2N

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Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success.  There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how the action taking place will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide wonderful support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

 

 

 

Don Quixote, Royal Shakespeare Company, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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The Royal Shakespeare Company have gone the whole hog in this version of Don Quixote.  They commissioned James Fenton and Grant Olding to adapt Miguel De Cervantes story for a modern audience and the pair have come up with a show that feels contemporary but true to time in which it was written. With audience participation encouraged and the cast entering and exiting through the stalls, it feels like a show that would have worked very well in the Globe Theatre even in the 17th Century.

David Threlfall is Don Quixote. He plays him as the straight man to Rufus Hounds’ Sancho Panza. This works very well as we care for Quixote, the fantasist who sees the world as he wishes it was. Panza is his faithful squire who sees the real world but makes sure that we are laughing at the situation not at the man. They make a fantastic double act, Rufus Hound improvises and involves the audience while Threlfall is too involved in his windmills to notice.

Audience participation is a large part of the show, it has a panto feel in places. Some of the comedy is slapstick and it is still funny – a sweary monk as he trips over an audience members foot, a bun fight between the cast and the audience. However, there is more to the show than this, it has so much going on that catching it all in one viewing is unlikely. The songs are good and give the piece an Andalusian atmosphere. There is puppetry that is both attractive and clever. The lion is spectacular and the hawk is funny. The horses are brilliant and their interaction threatens to steal the scene on a number of occasions.

The Don Quixote that we see these days consists of two books, the original and the follow up. The second was written roughly a decade after the success of the first, it tells of the exploits of Don Quixote after he becomes famous and this show retains that tradition. Often it leads to a change in tone between the two acts. Here is it handled cleverly by making the Duke and Duchess, nicely played by Richard Dempsey and Ruth Everett, into caricatures of pantomime villains, so their cruel tricks are jokes on them rather than our hero Quixote.

The ending of the story is done well, Rufus Hound has surprising depth, having laughed with him through the show, we feel his sadness at the end. Don Quixote has the last laugh though and we can be moved and still grin at his ascent to heaven.

The RSC have invented posh panto. A show that an Eton educated ex prime minister might take his son to see.  This show is a blast from beginning to end, great fun and a great night out. It deserves to be this year’s big Christmas hit.

 

Pinter 3, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. Previously on this blog: Pinter 1, Pinter 2 and Pinter 4

The most well known pieces in this collection are “Landscape” and “A kind of Alaska”. These are the opening and closing items and they take up the greater part of the show. They are both interesting and have excellent performances from Tamsin Greig and Keith Allen. Tamsin Greig is spellbinding as a woman attempting to come to terms with the fact that she went to sleep at 16 years of age and only awakened 29 years later.

There are 9 other vignettes in the evening and although a couple might not do any favours to Pinter’s reputation, Jamie Lloyd has unearthed some absolute gems from among his lesser known pieces. Closing the fist half, Lee Evans does a piece called “Monologue” where he effectively has a conversation with an empty chair. This is funny and poignant, and Lee Evans’ uniquely physical delivery brings extra empathy to the character.

“Night” is very unusual amongst the Pinter work in that it is resolutely positive in tone. Meera Syal and Tom Edden make the most of the upbeat lines and portray a couple who patently care for each other, even at those times when their memories differ. This is a short sketch, perhaps only five minutes long, but it is sublime to see Pinter’s words made sweet.  “Trouble in the Works” is another short sketch, absurd abstract comedy, well done and very funny. It is like Monty Python in style but it was written in 1959, so it predates them by a whole decade.

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Great care has been taken in the direction of this presentation to make all the individual pieces link together, and the show certainly does not feel like it is made up of 11 discrete items. This is helped by the ingenious set design which is a slowly spinning living room, highlighting a different area each time it turns. Even though many of the sketches only have one or two of the actors actively involved, Jamie Lloyd has cleverly joined them up so the whole has the feel of a single ensemble piece. This is most apparent in the sketch “God’s District” which is a solo comedy item, delivered by Meera Syal, but by the end it has all 5 of the actors playing instruments or singing along.

Overall, the quality of the writing is very high and the acting is a joy to watch. A couple of the pieces have not aged well, perhaps we are more sensitive to hints of sexism now than we were when it was written. This is Pinter though, so it is hard to say for certain, and they could be seen as his comment on the times in which he lived. Having said that, this compilation is positively uplifting compared to some of his darker anthologies. After watching Pinter’s 1 and 4, I had begun to wonder whether I had the fortitude to watch the rest of the season, but now that I have seen this, I am looking forward to 5, 6. and 7 with a spring in my step.

Dein Perry's Tap Dogs, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

 
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Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs was first performed twenty three years ago in Sydney and has been constantly touring the world since then. The reason for its success is that, in the words of a DIY product advertisement, “it does what it says on the tin”. The workman analogy is apt here. The dancers in this show are at pains to demonstrate that they are workmen, in work clothes and work boots, tap dancing on various parts of a construction site. They are rugged, rough and laddish as well as very talented tap dancers.

This show has much in common with a rock concert and that is only partly because of how loud it is. Most of the show they operate as a group but each routine has the opportunity for one of them to show off their skills in a solo performance. It has the energy and individual showmanship of a rock show.

The set is a construction site, with ladders and scaffolding, that they build and dismantle as they work through their routines. The show is high energy throughout, there is hardly a moment in the hour and a half when there is not at least one of them dancing at full tilt. They manage to keep the routines different and interesting with humour, competition and clever props. Torches, blowtorches, basketballs and water trays are all used to great effect and I would be surprised if the front rows don’t leave a lot damper than when they arrived.

There are two drummers who perform for part of the show but mostly the percussion is provided by the tap dancing. A particularly clever routine is one where they dance on drum machines, with each making a different percussive resonance. The dancers are all very talented and all of the routines are either very fast or technically difficult. Both their skill and their stamina is admirable, they do not let up for a minute during the entire show.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this show is loud. I think it is the loudest performance that I have ever seen – and I saw Status Quo and Simple Minds in the 1980s. If you like tap dancing, you will be hard pushed to find a show with a better demonstration of the skill. Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs has a winning formula and I would not be surprised to see it still touring in another twenty three years.

 

Honest Burgers, Oxford Circus, Kensington, Borough Market, Holborn, Bank…….

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The trend for upmarket burgers shows no sign of abating in London, and the competition for the best burger in town keeps on running. Honest Burgers seems to be doing well from this fashion. A quick look at their website tells me that they are just about to open their 29th restaurant. This is a very fast expansion for a brand that started in 2011 by making burgers at festivals.

One of the biggest advantages that Honest Burgers has, is their reliability. When you walk into one of their outlets you know where you are and you know what to expect. The décor is a bit rough and ready, there are no tablecloths.  The sauces and mayonnaise are served from the bottle, but they are good brands. They know their market and customers are not here for a romantic dinner for two, they don’t care about the accoutrements  -they are here for a good quality burger, probably on their way to or from another part of their time out.

Honest burgers are appetizing and satisfying. The ingredients are good quality, the beef patty is tasty and the cheese and bacon, if you choose them, are nice. The chips are good, they come as rosemary salted, but you can ask to have them plain if you prefer. The chicken burger is flavourful too, as are the honest brunch and  the avocado on toast from the breakfast menu. They do offer a few vegetarian options for the non carnivores amongst us.

I am not totally on board with all their concept options, but they obviously work for them and I guess I must be in the minority. They serve their food in tin bowls, while this is better than a slate or a wooden board, I just wish we could go back to plates now. I also dislike having to ask for a knife and fork each time. Although they always have them,  it makes me feel like an old fogey to ask, and really, how hard would it be to offer? I’m also over cocktails that come served in jars, this seems so dated. Beer served in tiny tins at high prices may be very lucrative, but I’m not sure how honest it is.

However, these quibbles aside, the burgers are good, the service is always friendly and efficient, and you know what you are going to get – whichever branch you go into. When out and about and looking for something to eat, Honest Burgers is always a reliable option. This is why they are able to open their 29th restaurant in under eight years… and now that there are so many, chances are that there will be one nearby.

 

Gillray's Steakhouse & Bar, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1

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This restaurant is inside the Marriott County Hall hotel. If you arrive by car the entrance is from Westminster Bridge Road through the hotel. The most attractive entrance though, is from Queens Walk, beside the river Thames. A sweep of steps leads you up from the walkway into a bright relaxed bar area and the restaurant entrance is a few steps to the right inside the door.

The room is sunlit and airy, light wood walls with large windows along one side overlooking the river. The view is lovely on a summer evening; people walking beside the river, the London Eye to the right and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament across the Thames to the left. We were here quite early, a pre-theatre dinner before a show at the National, which is a couple of hundred metres away along the South Bank. They have a pre and post theatre offer, it has a wider choice than many set menus and it is good value too.

There is a starter of chicken and mushroom roll, this is pleasantly spicy, a nice combination of flavours. We also tried the crusted pan fried mackerel, which was really a Caesar salad with mackerel, also good – the crusted fish taking the place of croutons. There is a choice of six mains, three steaks, a lamb, a fish dish and a vegetarian choice. The rib eye was nice, a little undersealed to be perfect but a good flavour. The lamb yorkie pie is a lamb casserole inside a large Yorkshire pudding, a clever serving idea. The lamb was nice, although the Yorkshire was more like a carvery pudding which is made in advance and kept warm.

I felt that the drinks were a little overpriced, the beer especially. The happy hour offer of a house gin and tonic for a fiver is not necessarily so wise, as this makes one aware of how much one might be paying for a branded gin at other times. The service was good, the staff were attentive and available whenever we needed them.

Overall, we had an enjoyable dinner in very pleasant surroundings, so if you have a show on the Southbank, Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar is certainly worth considering.

Pinter 1, Pinter at the Pinter season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 
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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. I saw Pinter 2 first. Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

Pinter 1 is a collection of 9 short plays, sketches and poems, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. The are generally political, often about authoritarianism, occasionally funny but broadly bleak and dark. The sketches “Press Conference”, “The Pres and an Officer” and the poem “American Football” are dark comedy but still light relief among the rest of the fare on offer here. “The Pres and an Officer” was discovered late last year, almost 10 years after his death. It seems to be so precisely what we would expect Pinter to say about Donald Trump that, if it is truly a Pinter piece, it is eerily prescient.

It is a measure of grimness of the writing that the next lightest piece is a poem called “Death”. This is lyrical, sad and it is beautifully delivered by Maggie Steed. “Precisely” is a comedy sketch about a nuclear holocaust. “The New World Order” a sketch about torture. “Mountain Language” is a moving short piece about the suppression of a language by an authoritarian state. The acting is phenomenal. Jonjo O’Neill is excellent as various political bullies in the pieces named above.

“One for the Road” is a piece about authoritarian interrogation. A man, wife, and their 7 year old son are interrogated in separate rooms by a tyrannical bully, played by Antony Sher. The violence is implied, as it all happens in the rooms we are not watching at the time, however it is actually more palpable because of this. A truly magnificent piece of writing, it was surely instrumental in his receiving of the Nobel Prize for literature, but in no way is it an easy watch. Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn are both amazing as the husband and wife.

They also play the husband and wife in “Ashes to Ashes”.  This is a later play, more abstract in narrative, though still dark in tone, experimental in the shifting of subject matter. It could be about the loss of a child, about the holocaust, about an abusive marriage or even about a murder. It hints at these, changes focus and moves on…  It is an interesting and brave piece, written by an ambitious author, confident of his ability.

All the pieces bar the last are directed by Jamie Lloyd and have a cold, metal, prison-cell like setting which suit the mood of the pieces. “Ashes to Ashes” is directed by Lia Williams, this is set in a living room and changes in lighting match the flow of the dialogue. It is ingenious how she makes the set feel more intimate without making it feel more warm.

Pinter 1 is a hard watch, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to act each day. It is dark and bleak with implied violence, both mental and physical. It may be emotionally draining, but the writing is strong, the themes are universal and the acting is tremendous. To say that I enjoyed it would not be entirely accurate, but I am really pleased to have seen it and if it were to return in at some point in the future, I would certainly gather together my mental strength and go to see it again. Warning! This collection is stimulating and disturbing and is definitely one to avoid on date night.

 
 
 
 

Taj Express, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

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Taj Express is a jukebox musical with a Bollywood movie theme. About half the music comes from hits of the Indian film industry, half is written by musical director Abhijit Vaghani, who has composed the background score to over 50 films himself. My knowledge of this area is scant, to say the least, so I only recognised a couple of the songs, but this took nothing away from my enjoyment of the show.

This show is basically a set of twenty four dance routines with short breaks in between for the dancers to change costume and regain their breath. None of the dancers have spoken lines, there is a kind of narrator whose job it is to join the dances together, to propel the story forward and to inject some comedy into the proceedings.

There is a tradition in jukebox musicals for the storyline to be thin. It is basically a hook on which to hang the songs and dance routines. Here the story practically transparent, although cleverly they make this into a joke, so we can laugh at how unlikely a tale it is, and to be fair, the story is not what the audience have come to see.

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The dancing is spectacular. This show is an exhilarating riot of colour and energy. The variety in the music is surprising, there are elements of tango, salsa, mixed up with bhangra and rock. The opening of the second act even had a techno rave feel with its ultra-violet lights and dayglo costumes and props. Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil play Arjun and Kareena, the shows romantic leads, their job is to relate the narrator’s story through their dance routines, a job they accomplish with considerable charm and allure. The ensemble as a whole are dazzling, full of acrobatic tumbling, gymnastic break dancing and twisting somersaults, their dynamic vigour is infectious and the audience is clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of may of the routines.

The set is simple but effective, a white backdrop leaves the stage completely clear for the main event, and pictures projected onto it provide the various settings in which the dancing is taking place. Bipin Tanna deserves special mention as the costume designer. They are a highlight of the show. To say they are bright and glittering is an understatement, they flow and shimmer with the dance moves, enhancing the movement of the dancers. They are vibrant and vivid, yet elegant and graceful when this is called for in the dance.

Taj Express is a show that you have to allow yourself to enjoy. It has elements of pantomime, don’t overthink – just let the pageant that unfolds onstage envelop you and  become swept up in the spectacle. By the end of the show much of the audience was up dancing in the aisles, a testament to the appeal of a most enjoyable evening.