Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Love Never Dies

First, a clarification: it has come to my attention that Noise feels he comes off poorly in my previous post, what with the making a scene with the manager in the pub and whatnot. So, to clarify, his behaviour was completely appropriate and the manager was a total wanker, and there are times when making a scene is totally necessary. I respect and admire people who can stand up for themselves and say "this is unacceptable" -- I don't do it nearly as often as I should, although I'm getting better at it.

Anyway. On to the subject of today's post:

I have loved musical theatre all my life, and have been going to shows for as long as I can remember. And if you asked me to name the shows that define my "really obsessive theatre freak" days, Phantom of the Opera certainly ranks among the top two or three. I wouldn't list it as my favourite show, but it certainly sparked a love of spectacle in theatre (who can forget that chandelier rising from the stage as the overture soared?) and introduced me to some performers who remain favourites to this day, and the show remains a sentimental favourite even if I have seen many others since that I can objectively say were "better" shows. Love him or loathe him (and there are many people on both ends of that spectrum), the impact that Andrew Lloyd Webber has had on the musical theatre of the late 20th century cannot be denied, and while he and his shows are not without their faults, I have great affection for both, and gratitude for the hours of enjoyment his music has given me. One of my favourite evenings, ever, was the night PetDoc, Noise, Serdic and I went to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 60th birthday celebration concert in Hyde Park. Standing in a crowd of 30,000 people singing Any Dream Will Do (from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and then Happy Birthday to the man himself ... it was a really special night.

So when PetDoc emailed and asked if I wanted to get tickets to the new sequel to Phantom that ALW has just opened in London, what could I say but "of course!" We figured it was an opportunity we couldn't pass up -- a little bit of theatre history and we wanted to be part of it.

The show was, honestly, almost exactly what I was expecting. Definitely bombastic and over the top in places (just like Phantom!) but also with moments of great beauty and thrilling music. I was a bit disappointed in the actor playing the Phantom during the first act, as he seemed to be straining for the high notes and having trouble with the props, but when I finally broke down and bought a program at intermission (don't even get me started on having to pay 3 pounds to see a cast list!) we discovered that we were actually seeing an understudy, which explained a lot. As the show has only been open a month, this was probably his first (or among his first at any rate) performance in what is a challenging role both physically and vocally, so instead I say bravo to him. We also saw an understudy for Madame Giry, and she was having prop issues as well (maybe the props are the issue?), but all in all the performances were very good.

I did have a couple of issues with characterization, especially compared to the original Phantom. My inner feminist hated the dramatic climax, where the Phantom and Raoul decide between themselves who will "get" Christine, and don't even bother to tell her. I felt like standing up and shouting at the stage "How about you let her choose, m'kay?" Christine is not exactly a paragon of 21st century feminist thinking in Phantom, either, but she does take action in the final scene and make her choice, and I was really irritated by the removal of even that little bit of autonomy for her.

A bigger issue for me was the characterization of the Phantom himself. In the original, he is a monster, haunted, tortured, and dangerous, redeemed only by his love for Christine and his music. He kills on a whim, he kidnaps and threatens, he extorts money from the opera house. Yes, you are supposed to feel sorry for him, and reflect on the society that has made him what he is, but you are also supposed to fear him, and believe him capable of great cruelty and evil. Every actor I have seen play the Phantom has brought that out in voice and, more importantly, in movement and body language. His is a twisted soul, and his body reflects that. There was none of that in this Phantom. Even allowing for the fact that we were seeing an understudy in the role, I think the problem is in the conception and production, more than in the performance. This Phantom walks and talks like an ordinary gentleman, albeit one who wears a mask. He goes out and about in Coney Island, he receives visitors freely in his lair, and you don't believe he would be capable of killing anything more than a fly. Even when the mask comes off and his deformity is revealed, most of the characters show nothing more than mild discomfort, if they notice at all. I don't know if this was an attempt to make the show lighter in tone than the original (there are several "vaudeville" type numbers and things like that) but it didn't work for me. I'm also not sure why they had to turn Raoul into a raging asshole, but that's a minor point.

All in all, though, what the show really did was make me wish I was seeing Phantom again instead. And I thought I was done seeing Phantom, as I saw it many, many times during my aforementioned theatre freak days. But that residual affection is still there, and there are a couple of times during Love Never Dies where musical themes from Phantom surface, and that music is so familiar to me. It moved something deep inside me that of course the music from Love Never Dies, being unfamiliar to me and not loaded with so much emotional baggage from a different time in my life, would not.

So, to sum up, worth seeing, and an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Nothing like the original, though.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Street where the riches of ages are stowed

A technical note first: blogger is being a pain in the arse about photos, so those will have to wait until I'm home and on my own computer.

So, this is my 7th trip to London. And every time I've come (with the exception of the last time we were here, which was just a one night stopover on our way home from our honeymoon) I have had Portobello Road on my list of things to see, and I've never made it there. I wanted to go there for only one reason -- because of the song in Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." On Saturdays Portobello Road is a huge antiques market, but during the week the shops are still open and you can still get a sense of the atmosphere. We didn't make it there on Saturday (we were navigating the mudpits, er, I mean, footpaths of Hever that day) but PetDoc and I finally made it there yesterday. We wandered the length of the street and had lunch (and our first glass of Strongbow of the day!) in a pub. Unfortunately, while my meal was fine (nothing special, but fine) PetDoc's was nearly inedible due to the amount of pepper that had been added ... and little did we know that it was merely setting the stage for our pub experiences for the day.

After lunch PetDoc and I headed over to Kensington Palace. I had been there before, several years ago, but thought I would enjoy a return visit and PetDoc had never been, and then we decided we would treat ourselves to afternoon tea in the Orangery. I had seen on the palace's website the night before that the state rooms are currently hosting a modern art exhibit that sounded like it could either be really interesting or really wierd -- with the idea being that you search through the different rooms to find clues about seven different princesses who have lived in the palace. When we arrived at the palace we didn't think it was a good sign that we were greeted by a volunteer who explained the installation and warned us that we would see no historical information whatsoever about the state rooms (you couldn't even buy a guidebook with information about the rooms). He seemed extremely apologetic and spent several minutes making sure we knew what we would be seeing. After we went through the palace I hovered in the entry/exit hall waiting for PetDoc to visit the loo and overheard this poor man have several groups turn away because they wanted to "really see a palace" (he was sending them to Hampton Court) and when he asked people coming out what they had thought, to a person they expressed disappointment in not "really getting to see a palace." So I would say this experimental installation is not a smashing success.

What did we think? Well, the installation was interesting, but we would rather have gotten to see the palace. And we thought the 13 pound entry fee was a little steep for half a dozen rooms where you couldn't even see the rooms.

Tea in the Orangery, on the other hand, was worth every penny, and absolutely delightful. We enjoyed it immensely. Finger sandwiches, eclairs, and, of course, a scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam. I had an Indian Breakfast tea, which was delicious -- light and flavourful.

Continuing on the tea theme, we needed to make the usual pilgrimage to the Twinings tea shop on the Strand, so we took a bus down Kensington High Street, past Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, and down the Strand to the tea shop. Having made our purchases we had about an hour to kill before meeting Noise for dinner, so we decided to find a pub and have a pint and then order dinner when he got there. Well, the best laid plans and all that. We did have our pint, and a bit of entertainment as we watched an episode of Law and Order: UK being filmed outside the pub (the leading actress apparently used to be on Dr. Who, and she drew quite a crowd of admirers as filming went on). And then Noise arrived. And while I don't like to blame him, that's when things started to go downhill. ;-)

We ordered our meals at the bar, as you do, and I guess we threw the waitress off when we placed two different orders for the same table (something we have done before in many other pubs with no problem). We were chatting and watching the filming and didn't realize how long it was taking to get our food until half an hour had passed. We were just getting ready to ask someone about our food (we had theatre tickets and were starting to worry about the time) when the manager must have noticed our unhappy expressions and he came over. He promised to take care of it and bustled off, and came back several minutes later to assure us that our food was "in the lift" and would be "right up." Five minutes later (so much for "right up") two of our three meals were delivered to our table (PetDoc and Noise's) ... cold and congealed. We waited a few more minutes for mine (in case the lift could only handle two meals at a time) but when nothing appeared Noise went looking for the manager. And caused a scene. The manager insisted it was our fault, as we hadn't told him there were two different orders at the table (from which we deduce that our order had never made it to the kitchen and he had resubmitted it, but he missed the second part of the order). He had no good reason for why what was delivered was cold. Noise insisted on a refund (we had prepaid for our meals, which is standard in British pubs) and was told no, as we had received food and were going to eat it. Noise returned to our table and we decided we didn't have time to go elsewhere (we were now about 20 minutes from curtain, although the theatre was just down the street) so we started to share out the two meals between the three of us. A minute later the manager appeared at our table with a third plate and put it down in front of me with a flourish ... too bad it was the wrong dish (fish and chips -- I had ordered bangers and mash). But on the plus side, it was hot, so I told him to leave it. He ended up refunding my meal and PetDoc's (continuing to claim there was nothing wrong with Noise's), and we gulped down the edible parts of the food in front of us and dashed down the street to the theatre.

We had tickets for Love Never Dies, the Andrew Lloyd Webber penned sequel to Phantom of the Opera, but my review of that is a blog entry all its own, and this one is already long enough. To be continued ...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Famous last words: "It doesn't look so wet."

PetDoc, Noise, and I went to Hever today, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and an important site in Tudor history. One of the things that appealed to us about Hever was that the castle is about a mile from the train station, and it's a lovely walk through the village and along the public footpaths across the fields. For a fair chunk of the way you can choose the footpaths or the roads. Obviously the major difference is that the roads are paved and the footpaths are,well, not. Upon leaving the station we were soon confronted with the first choice between paved and not, and PetDoc uttered the fateful words above. So we set off across the fields, baa-ing cheerfully at the sheep who came racing over the hill to greet us.

But pretty soon the scene looked like this:

Although today was a beautiful day with bright sunshine, the spring rains had taken their toll. At times we were ankle deep in mud -- I though I had lost a shoe at one point. However, we pushed on (after a certain point it made more sense to keep going than try to go back) and eventually came out on a blessed, blessed road. After a quick stop at the local pub (not surprisingly called the Henry the VIII) to wash our shoes in the bathroom and enjoy a much-deserved pint of Strongbow, we arrived at the castle.

Castle is a bit of a misnomer, as Hever is really a country house (albeit a large and luxurious one!). We very much enjoyed our visit, trooping through the Tudor era rooms and imaging the events that much have transpired in those very rooms. This, to me, is the fascinating thing about England ... that you can go to these places where important events happened and interesting people lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and the places are still there! And in many cases, they haven't changed at all. For a history buff like me, there's nothing like it.

We followed up our castle visit with a walk around a section of the beautiful gardens. Then we headed back to the train station ... via the roads this time!

A few more pictures of a lovely day, spent with my favourite sister and her favourite husband: