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.

 

Porches Velho, Porches, Algarve, Portugal

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Porches Velho is a restaurant that could be called a hidden gem. Porches is an attractive village about three kilometres inland from the Southern Algarvian coast, between Carvoeiro and Armacao De Pera. It is quiet and calm, with narrow cobbled streets and is relatively untouristed, even in the height of summer. The area is famous for its pottery and the local workshops are certainly worth a visit. However, the largest of these are on the nearby N125 and not so many people go into the village itself.

The village has a pretty church. Its bells rang (8pm on a Wednesday, if you would like to try to recreate the effect) as we walked up the hill to the restaurant and a sliver of moon shone over its steeple, making us feel a little like we had stepped into a spaghetti western, so the romantic scene was set even before we entered the restaurant. The room itself has high vaulted ceilings, it is a 200 year old converted wine cellar. It has thick whitewashed walls decorated sparsely with antique agricultural equipment, tiles and old fashioned lamps. It oozes Portuguese tradition from every beam.

Porches Velho is a “Restaurante Tipico Potugues” which means that it serves classic Portuguese food. The tables are dressed in white linen with white napkins and soon after you are shown to your table the waiter brings the couvert dishes, fish paste, olives, pickled carrots and pickled beetroot, also a basket of sliced local bread with oil and butter. The wines are all Portuguese and there is a full list to choose from.

The starters consist of fish, soup or vegetarian dishes. We had a Portuguese Gazpacho and the vegetable soup. Both were excellent, the vegetable was thick and hot and the Gazpacho was spicy and juicy. The main course menu has many traditional dishes. Rabbit Cataplana, Alentejo Lamb and chicken casserole are among the interesting choices.

We went for the Old Portuguese Style Steak and the Medallions of Black Pork Tenderloin. The Pork was perfectly cooked, and served with a sauce of wild mushrooms on the side. The sauce was delicious and thick with different types of mushroom. The Steak is served in a deep dish, covered in serrano ham, surrounded by sliced potatoes, in a thick brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. This is a traditional way to serve steak in the Algarve and many restaurants offer this dish. This particular version though, was beautifully tender, the steak was very good quality and one of the nicest that I have had.

For the dessert offering, the waiters come to your table carrying the choices available. This is a clever idea, as one is much more likely to be tempted by seeing the dishes than by reading about it on the menu. The ice-cream is homemade and I can certainly vouch for the chocolate one being rich and flavourful.

The service was very good, we felt that they were genuinely interested in our opinions of the food and went out of their way to ensure that we had a good evening. Porches Velho is a wonderful Portuguese Restaurant with lovely traditional Portuguese hospitality. It is a hidden gem of the Algarve, a little of the beaten track but all the better for it and certainly worth the trip to visit it. Highly Recommended.

Handel & Hendrix in London, Brook Street, London W1

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London has a number of small and quirky museums. This one dedicated to life and works of George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix is certainly an unexpected combination. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the 18th Century and Hendrix lived at number 23 for short time in the 1960s.
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Bach’s house is decorated in the slightly austere Georgian style that was fashionable when he lived there. It does contain some beautiful musical instruments, including a wonderful harpsichord and a chamber organ. The bedroom has a four poster bed and there are some good paintings and a bust of Handel too. There are recitals held in the music room at least once a week and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.
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The Hendrix flat is laid out somewhat differently. The bedroom/living room is decorated as it would have been when Hendrix and his girlfriend lived here, this is borne out by the many photos of the room published during this time. The rest of the apartment is done in a more traditional museum style, with guitars and jackets in glass cases and commemorative posters on the walls.  The bedroom is interesting, the fact that it is so classically psychedelic Carnaby Street 1960s in style probably reflects the huge effect that he had on the fashion of the time.
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Unlike many museums in London, this one is not free unless you have a National Art Pass. It is small but it does contain a number of curious items. It is striking to compare what the height of fashion was in the centre of London two hundred years apart – and there is something apt in the fact that it doesn’t open until 11am on any day. Half an hour or forty minutes will adequately see you round this exhibition, but if you are a fan of either rock or baroque, I think there will be something here to please you.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1

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London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.
The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.
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The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.
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The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.
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The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and  comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.
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The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.
The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here . 
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War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is  parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.
 
 

The 10 Best Shows to book in London this December.

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  1. Romeo & Juliet. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. A contemporary version of the Shakespeare classic.
  2. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The Palace Theatre. A really good story and brilliant special effects.
  3. Les Miserables. Queen’s Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue. This predates The London Lark, but it has been running so long because it is very good!don-quixote-lt
  4. Don Quixote. The Garrick Theatre. The Christmas show for people who don’t do panto!
  5. School of Rock. Gillian Lynne Theatre, Drury Lane. Very enjoyable musical, a bit corny but great fun.
  6. Summer and Smoke. Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. Worth seeing for Patsy Ferran’s performance alone. Wonderful use of music at dramatic moments.
  7. Macbeth. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. Niamh Cusack and Christopher Ecclestone are fantastic in this.
  8. Follies. The National Theatre. Won the Olivier award for best musical revival last year, returning early next year and booking now. Sondheim in his prime, beautifully done.the-play-that-goes-wrong-5249
  9. The Play that goes Wrong. The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. This does exactly what it says on the tin. Very, very fanny! (Ha,Ha!)
  10. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The Apollo, Shaftsbury Avenue. Great Songs and a lovely uplifting story.

I have restricted the list to those shows that I have seen myself. There are a number of shows that I am sure will be wonderful but that I have not yet seen. Hamilton, which is on at the Victoria Palace appears to be universally loved. I am really looking forward to seeing Company at The Geilgud Theatre. The Inheritance at The Noel Coward Theatre looks like it will be fantastic too.

This list is obviously based on personal taste too. People who love Bat Out Of Hell, seem to really adore it and return regularly, although I have to say that I found the new songs less good than the originals and the story is poor. Some of the special effects are spectacular.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter might appeal, if you like your theatre to be a bit more off kilter. It is brim full of weird and unusual ideas, but it is not an easy watch and the realisation is not as polished as Martin McDonagh’s usual fare. You also need to be quick, as it is due to finish in early January.

So, if you are thinking of booking theatre tickets for London anytime this month, there is a show for you somewhere in this list. Enjoy!

 

Burger and Beyond, Unit 62 West Yard, Camden Market, London NW1

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The hunt for London’s best burgers in unlikely places has brought us to a petite market stall, hidden deep inside Camden Market. When we arrive, we find that it is not quite as strange as it sounds, there is a street food section of the market, nicely situated just by the canal, which has lots of very trendy stalls and vehicles selling quirky upmarket indie food. Even at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon this place was packed to the gills and finding a seat at which to eat our burger in comfort involved some sharp elbow use.

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Burger and Beyond occupies an internal corner of this little enclave. The menu is tiny and your food is cooked to order. It basically does a hand pressed burger, you can have it with cheese, bacon, onion, jalapenos and mayo or any combination of the above. It does fries and something called Tater Tots, which seem to be like griddled or fried rosti potatoes. There is also a choice between one or two beef patties.

They sell their fare well, we don’t just have a beef burger here – we have hand pressed patties made with 45 day aged beef from rare breed cattle. According to their marketing, the same people who own the stall are the ones who run the farm, so there is no ambiguity in the provenance of their food.

Whatever the publicity says, the truth of the quality of their burger is in the taste, and this is good. The beef is succulent and tasty, you can tell that the meat is good quality. The toppings are good too, the bacon is crispy and slightly smoked, the cheese has that just on the edge of runny condition. They obviously train their people to cook their burgers just so. In terms of their menu, the adage small is good, works very nicely here. The Tater Tots were satisfying too, an interesting change from regular fries.

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My one quibble is that they are difficult to eat. They are not served with a knife and fork, it is a street market stall, so I did know what I was getting in to. They are too large to fit in your mouth without dripping bits everywhere – the double patty ones must be truly messy. I managed to procure a knife and fork from a different stall nearby, but it would have been nicer to be able to get one from Burger and Beyond itself.

Obviously, word of the quality of their food is spreading, because I believe that they are about to open their first permanent restaurant, in fashionable Shoreditch no less. Their burgers really are good, so if this restaurant has cutlery, they will certainly be in the running for the best burger in London!

Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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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 and it has been expended and improved since, by both Christopher Wren and by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Part of the palace is still used as living accommodation by the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex.

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.

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Victoria Revealed is an exhibition about the life of Queen Victoria. She was born in Kensington Palace and lived here until she became monarch in 1837. It consists of eight rooms detailing her life in, mainly chronological, order. It does contain some interesting personal items such as the dolls with which she played as a child. The portrait of her at the time of her coronation, shows why she was considered a beauty in her youth.

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It has the uniform that her husband Albert wore on their wedding day. This has embroidered messages, such as “dearly loved” and “Oh my Angel Albert”, on the cuffs collar and pockets. It also has a garter, tied visibly, just below the left knee. It also has the gilt bassinet which held many of her nine children, as babies.

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The rooms are relatively sparsely decorated, but have some nice busts and a few interesting paintings, including a couple of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, in which it took place. The Great Exhibition was opened in in 1851 by Queen Victoria herself. In the gardens of the palace, stands “The Queen Victoria Statue” designed, in marble, by her own daughter Louise, who was a celebrated artist of the time.

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The presentation contains a moving memorial to Albert. Victoria was strongly affected by his death, she wore mourning clothes and withdrew from public life for many years after.  Victoria Revealed is a fascinating show, the items on display are sympathetically exhibited and give a nice insight into her personal life.

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Also on the first floor is “Diana, her fashion story”. This is a collection of Princess Diana’s most famous suits and dresses. There are about 20 of her outfits on show here, along with notes about the designers and details of the occasions on which she wore them. They are interesting in that they mark the fashions of the time as well as well as being beautifully designed. It is surprising how many of them are recognizable, it seems that time has proven that Diana really was a fashion icon of the 1980s and 90s.

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.

Now The Hero, Swansea International Festival.

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Swansea International Festival runs from the 22nd September to the 7th October this year. It has many interesting events, among them a stand up performance by Rob Bryden and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”.
The centrepiece of the Festival is a Welsh Commission for 14-18NOW called “Now The Hero” 14-18NOW have collaborated with various artists to make some very compelling pieces over the past few years, related to the centenary of the First World War. A particularly thought provoking event earlier this year was “Fly by Night” where thousands of pigeons with LED lights were released over the Thames at sunset.
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“Now The Hero” is their final piece and it looks like another winner. It is an immersive musical/theatrical parade, starting in Swansea Bay and finishing with a choir recital in Brangwyn Hall in the city. It tells the story of three Welsh warriors from different time periods. There is an ancient Celtic soldier, a First World War conscript and a contemporary service man. There is also a voice for peace, with Eddie Ladd voicing quotes from protestors at Greenham Common’s women’s camp.
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The music is a choral requiem written by Owen Morgan Roberts and Owen Sheers. It is based on a traditional old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” and will be performed by Cambridge choir, Polyphony. Brangwyn Hall where the event finishes contains “The British Empire Panels” a work originally commissioned to be hung in the House of Lords but rejected by them as too colourful.  It was notoriously described at the time by Lord Crawford as “all tits and bananas”, however almost a hundred years later it is regarded as a powerful commemoration of Welsh participation in the First World War.
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This event will transform Swansea over the course of five days  on 25th to 29th September and it looks as though it will be a spectacular highlight of the Swansea International Festival.
Other performances at the Festival are The BBC National Orchestra with Karl Jenkins and The Welsh National Opera doing “Rhondda Rips it Up” with Lesley Garrett and Madeline Shaw. So if you are looking for some art and culture at the end of September, Swansea is the place to be!

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.