1st to 4th October 2015, one of my now (usually) annual trips to my spiritual home, the West End of London.
The trip started with a longer than usual train journey, as before I got to Cardiff I had to catch one from my home town. Long story but potted version being, my brother needed my car to collect my partner in crime at home young Scoobs, from his holiday home at the kennels. As none of my brother's modes of transport would hold “my (not so) little friend” said in best Al Pacino accent!
So Valley Lines to Cardiff and I get on the 9:55 train to London, getting there around mid day. Then it was on the tube to my now regular home (away from home) of the St. Giles Hotel. Oh and it was on this journey that I nearly flattened some poor unsuspecting fellow passenger, I'm stood there on the train in the station and listening to music trying to look like a local who does this every day, i.e. not holding onto the handrail, and JOLT the train lurches forward as it starts out of the station and I barely manage to regain my balance prior to flattening said unsuspecting fellow passenger.
I tell you if your looking for a reasonably priced central London hotel you cannot
(in my opinion) do better than the St.Giles. The rooms: single that I book, are a
little … compact, but they have all the required amenities: On-
To return to the size of the room all I will say is come on do you go to London to spend time in your hotel room? It's clean, secure, well run and is about as central to Theatreland as you can get without kipping down with the Cats, listening to the Whistle Down (of) the Wind, while your feeling a little Less Miserables about Missing Saigon! Okay okay I’ll quit there.
Seriously though to give theatre goers an idea of where this gem is, the first room I stayed in a few years ago lying in bed looking out of my window I could see the statue of Freddie Mercury on the front of the Dominion.
So I had shows I wanted to see this time but hadn't booked any tickets in advance, partly due to the frankly ludicrous system implemented by (it appears) most theatres today. That you can't book a single seat if this will leave one other seat as an “orphan”. All well and good if you have a lot of choice or you have someone to go with you, but as a single theatregoer it leaves me with a problem, i.e. there is a seat I want, I have the money to pay for it but THEY WON'T LET ME!
So I venture out and head straight to Miss Saigon, the show I tried to book in advance. This being due to the fact that during the original run I saw the show from the front row, really enjoyed this and wanted to do the same for this production. So I head to the box office ask if they have any day seats left in the front row and Bingo! They do, so I hand over my £20 and sorted. The one last “wish” I had for this show achieved. I mean I want it to run longer but, as far as things I can control: I've seen the the new cast, I was at the 25th anniversary performance, and I have tickets for both performances on the last day next February, same as I did for the original run.
So what to book for the evening, well, I'm a member of a great group on Facebook called the Musical Theatre Appreciation Society, and people on there had been raving about Imelda Staunton in Gypsy
Now I know the show. I even own a copy of one of the films made of it, not the original but the one with Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb (the reason I bought it ... a crush I had! ;) ) But I wasn't too sure, so I headed to the Savoy theatre, which to be honest I think of as almost a toy theatre. I have never been to such a … compact venue, I lifted my pint to my mouth during a previous visit and physically 'encouraged' three people next to me to do the same … and one didn't even have a drink!
However I digress, I thought I’d chance my arm and ask for a day seat. To be told “there aren't any left in the stalls, but hold on let me see what I can do”, the nice gentleman checks and says “I can do you one seat in the stalls normally £69.50 for £25. Result!
So my shows for the day planned I took in the sites of my favourite place on earth. Discovering in the process the truth behind the old adage that nothing stays the same for ever, the amount of building (presently demolishing stage) going on around Leicester Square is unbelievable. One of the cinemas I visited regularly, the bank I used to get money from … gone.
So I head back to the Prince Edward Theatre for Miss Saigon and settle in to my front row seat for visit (about 23) to this wonderful show.
At this performance I saw Eva Noblezada 'Kim', Jon Jon Briones 'The Engineer', Chris Peluso 'Chris', Sangwoong Jo 'Thuy' all “primaries”. Together with Carolyn Maitland 'Ellen' and Aaron Lee Lambert 'John' All of whom were superb. Carolyn in particular almost made me like 'Ellen', I mean I've always felt for the girl, but have been staunchly 'Team Kim' so to speak, but in this performance “Maybe” was mesmerising, gave me goosebumps. Another aspect I enjoyed 'close up' where the fact that to a person all performers were giving it their all, even at this matinee performance close(ish) to the end of a two year run. I mean I could see tears in the eyes of individual cast members and I’m talking chorus not primaries.
A quick change back at the hotel and it was to the Savoy, a walk that would (should) have taken me about 10 minutes... so 25 minutes later I get there, my wonderful and unfailingly bad sense of direction strikes again!
I venture in, buy a programme and head to my seat. Three in from the end of the row, so here I thought I would chance my arm so to speak, seeing that there was a couple in the last two seats of the row and knowing most people like to be as close to centre as possible I venture “I'm in that seat, but would you like to move in more central as I like the aisle seat?” and luckily for me they did. It subsequently appears they didn't enjoy the show that much as they didn't return for the second act.
So Gypsy, suggested by the memoirs of the real burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, has a book by Arthur Laurents, music Jule Styne and lyrics Stephen Sondheim. This production directed by Jonathan Kent stars the frankly exceptional Imelda Staunton.
Well you know (parts of) this show even if you don't think you do … 'Let me Entertain You', 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', 'You gotta Get a Gimmick', are amongst the songs from the show that have entered the popular consciousness over the years.
As you would expect being a West End show, all the cast were good, no great! But I have to say Imelda Staunton was unbelievable. I knew she was in Sweeney Todd a few years back, but prior to this I didn't know she could sing, I mean she is a famous actress but I’d always associated her with TV work. This evening however ... I mean this was a definite first for me ... to be in a theatre when you witness a 'literal' Show Stopper, her performance of 'Rose's Turn' took the audience to their feet, this guy included.
I really enjoyed the show, it's a classic and you can see why when you see it performed
as well as this. Good news is it has been recorded for broadcast on telly at a later
date. So you'll get another chance to see, and in my case definitely record this
memorable theatrical event. A special mention must also go to Lara Pulver 'Louise'
in a role which could (and frequently has) been overshadowed by Mama Rose, but her
heartfelt performance throughout, and then in the length of one song 'Let me Entertain
You' her blossoming to the uber-
Stand Out moments for me included: (Obviously) “Rose's Turn”, “You Gotta have a gimmick”, and “Let me Entertain You” (the transformation). Really worth a visit if you can get there before it closes on the 28th November.
So Thursday almost over, a full day with all the travelling and two shows, so I have a quiet pint in the Coal Hole pub and set off to my hotel.
We get to Friday the first full day in London, I shower, in the inverted Tardis …
well it certainly looked bigger to me BEFORE I got into it! So a couple of bruised
elbows later I sit down to dry my hair and BANG! I blow the hair-
Hair (potential) disaster averted I venture out. Getting to the Lift area of my floor (the 6th) and press a few buttons and wait … and wait … and wait, now this is one drawback of most central London hotels no matter how many lifts they have you quite often have to wait, and the one suggestion I would make to this hotel is clearer marking of the stairs, as upon deciding I’d take the physical option to descend to ground floor it took a little while to realise the stairs were marked as emergency exit. So being a little reticent in case of alarms I stood there looking a little perplexed when a kind member of the cleaning staff confirmed I was okay to go through said door. At which point I was greeted by these,
The nearest to spiral stairs I've come across in a hotel, so going down six floors was an almost vomit inducing experience.
However I Make it to ground level.
As it's a one show day, and I know I want to see Beautiful and Bend It Like Beckham, I find Beautiful's home first and I head in and ask about ticket availability. I'm informed that they don't do Day Seats so I pay full price £69.50 for an end of row stalls seat, sorted.
So now, next question how to get to a venue I've never been to before … the O2 Arena.
I'm headed there as, for as long as I can remember I have been an Elvis fan. Presently
there is an exhibition there of items direct from Graceland (Elvis's home for any
heathens reading! ;) ). I look into a Taxi £30-
Getting into the O2 I head for the box office, get my ticket, £22.75 and wander to the exhibition. First impressions (of the O2) … I’ve visited smaller towns! This place is humongous.
Now rather than post one or two photos of this great expo if you click on the photo
(of Elvis's iconic TCB ring), my limited web design permitting you should be taken
to a “slide show” of some of the photos I took. Safe to say I was impressed. I mean
I have been to Memphis (Sun Studio's & Graceland) as well as Las Vegas, but despite
being an avid (some would say rabid) wearer of digit adornment I missed the said
TCB ring on my visit. So when a good friend of mine and high up in the Elvis Presley
fan club in Wales informed me that said “holy grail” for finger decoration aficionados
was there the trip was a no brain-
A quick, pleasant, thankfully uneventful and good value return via the tube and I get to Leicester Square.
I'm quite peckish so I headed to The Moon Under Water, step inside ... turn round and head right back out! Well it was about 12:30 and the place was packed they were (almost) hanging from the rafters.
So looking around a sign for the films showing in the Odeon catches my eye and on a whim, and the fact it is starting in 5 minutes I decide on a visit to the cinema and get a ticket for Mission Impossible Rogue Nation. Then stand there looking puzzled as I’m informed by the member of staff in the box office window “the entrance is to your right”, I look and am greeted by the outside of a fire door, look around again a little more puzzled, to then be informed the entrance to the Odeon Studios (the smaller multi screen part) is through the coffee shop next door!
An entertaining few hours pass and I venture blinking into daylight again. I get a Subway sandwich and head back to my hotel, it was on this journey that I realised that my mind may not work in the same way as other people's .. I'm waiting at a pedestrian crossing … and waiting, there's a gap in the traffic and a guy next to me starts to cross (the light's are still on red for pedestrians) I walk out, after checking again for traffic I'm silly not stupid! Half way across the lights go to green for walk the guy next to me starts to run so, so do I ...What??? Why??? ;)
I have a quick meal, crash for an hour or so and then dress for my evening show.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical tells the story of (not too surprisingly) of Carole King. Famous for, amongst other things, her seminal album Tapestry. What I didn't know, and I'm a big 60's music fan, was the career she had before that, writing with her first husband, the iconic songs: “Will you still love me tomorrow”, “The Locomotion”, “It might as well rain until September”, “Some kind of wonderful”, “Take good care of my baby” and “Up on the roof” amongst many others.
The London production: Book by Douglas McGrath, Words & Music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and is directed by Marc Bruni. Has a cast lead by Katie Brayben 'Carole King', other cast included: Alan Morrissey 'Gerry Goffin', Lorna Want 'Cynthia Weil', Ian Mackintosh 'Barry Mann', Glynis Barber 'Genie Klein' and Gary Trainor 'Donnie Kirshner'
Now to call this a Jukebox musical is both 100% accurate and may potentially do it an injustice, due to the negative connotations some theatre goers associate to this title. Personally I LOVE a well done Jukebox musical, and this is one of, if not THE best I have seen. The music is great, the performances vary from excellent to unbelievable. A case in point being that a true star is born in Katie Brayben, she is remarkable in the role and definitely one to watch for the future. The supporting cast includes someone I'd seen before Lorna Want who played 'Juliet' in a show that I may have been one of a small group of fans of, Romeo & Juliet the Musical. She is great as the sassy & sexy Cynthia Weil another lyric writer who worked at the same building and was friends with Carole King.
As I mentioned all the cast were great. Stand out moments for me included: “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “Will you still love me tomorrow”, “Walking in the Rain” and “(You make me feel like) a natural woman”, the latter a true tour de force performance by Katie. I will sum up by simply saying GO AND SEE IT!
Now although I said this was a one show day, this is not strictly true as from here I headed to the Comedy Store, another of the fun 'traditions' I have developed in the years I've been coming to London. It used to be the midnight show, but they have now moved it to 11:00pm which is great as you don't have the extra hour to kill between end of theatre and start of comedy.
A Friday evening is “The best of Stand Up” and features 5 comics one acting as compère and quite often includes a shorter spot, which you don't know about until after, and is a beginner on their first attempt at comedy in a big venue like this. When I saw it Friday 2nd October the stand out comics for me were Imran Yusuf the compère and Dave Fulton.
So with the development of Leicester Square area having (very inconsiderately in my opinion) demolished the McDonalds I always visited after this show I wander, some what merrily in search of sustenance at about 1:30am. Find a Burger King open grab something, return to my hotel and we get to Saturday, the last full day of my trip.
Saturday a.m., and I manage to dry my hair without destroying another electrical appliance and I head out. A man on a mission so to speak, as those of you paying attention will remember I said there were two shows I REALLY wanted to see Beautiful, tick the box there and Bend it like Beckham, so being the last day of my trip it was important that I managed to get a ticket for this, so I head to the theatre, the Phoenix, one of those venues where, confusingly, the box office isn't at the front of the building but is an innocuous retail unit around the corner and for the first time I had to join a queue for tickets.
When I eventually get in though the door I am greeted with a space only marginally larger that the shower I had left about half an hour before! But I digress, I over hear the box office staff saying “no more day seats left for this evening's performance”. So heart rate up a bit, but when I get to the front, ask about day seats for the matinee I get a front row seat for £25. Result!
I head out and think okay what about the Saturday night show, now I'd heard good things about Memphis and Kinky Boots, but must say despite as I mentioned earlier loving 60's music the songs I’d heard from Memphis didn't click for me, and I knew very little about Kinky Boots. So I decided on looking into revisiting The Commitments, my only reservation being despite the show closing in early November they don't do day seats.
So I thought lets see what they charge for front row, usually discounted as you have to look up quite a bit. I enter, ask and get told they are £69.50 So no discount there then! I'm about to to call it quits when the box office lady says, “let me check … well I have one return which I can do for £35 and it's on the aisle in the front row”. Result again!
So I head back to Leicester Square and enter a much quieter Moon under Water and have a full cooked breakfast … helps with the hangover you know, okay the pint of fosters I had with it may have played a part too.
So back to my hotel to watch the end of the movie of Bend It Like Beckham which I had started on the way up in the train, and I head out for the matinee of this new show.
Bend it Like Beckham is a new, original (not using existing songs) musical directed by Gurinder Chadha the well known movie director, who directed the original film. In what I think is her first Musical theatre production. Music is by Howard Goodall, Lyrics Charles Hart and Book by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha.
It tells the story of 'Jess' a young Indian girl who loves to play football, and her family who basically want her to be a “normal Indian girl” and meet and marry a nice young man. The film was a hit and starred Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightly and Archie Panjabi.
In the Musical the lead, on the day I saw it was played (wonderfully) by the alternate Sharan Phull. Now with the exception of Sharan and Preeya Kalidas who played 'Monica' in the original film and in the musical plays Jess's sister 'Pinky' (played in the movie by Archie Panjabi, who now has a career in the US in prime time TV shows like The Good Wife) have I lost you yet ? :), I’m not too sure of who I saw in the lead roles as I had two slips in my programme mentioning different alternates, so going on the fact the one didn't mention Sharan playing 'Jess' I'll go by this one. So I “saw” Lauren Samuels 'Jess' and Jamie Campbell Bower as 'Joe', the friend she meets who gets her into the local girls football team, and their coach respectively.
I really enjoyed this show. I find Indian culture really interesting, and I saw Bombay Dreams twice during it's run in London, Preeya being in this too, and I will say this lady has a great voice, wonderful comic timing, and is very easy on the eye too!
Stand out songs for me were: 'UB2', 'Girl Perfect', 'Glorious' and 'Sadaa Chardhdi Kalaa'. And as seems to be my mantra for this trip all I'll say is go and see this great show.
Hell I was lucky I enjoyed everything I saw!
So a pleasant (now I found the most direct route) wander back to the Hotel, change and out for The Commitments.
Now I'd seen this show before so check my review for October 2013 for story details. The cast this time were great, the atmosphere frankly NUTS! And to steal (and paraphrase) their tagline they really are 'The Hardest working' cast in the West End. I mean the encore alone would have exhausted less seasoned performers. Oh and if any of the cast are reading this … you never know … I was the guy in the front row recoiling in horror when you shoved the mic in his face during said encore. My explanation for this ... I am living proof that NOT all Welshmen can sing!
Now after the show I wander out into a packed West End to find out that England had just been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup, so being Welsh (we beat them the week before you know) I seriously considered asking for my drink in the next pub by handing over a note less they recognise my accent. :)
One pint in Waxy's little Sister, one of the smaller pubs on the edge of Soho / Chinatown, and I really enter a new world to me.
It was at the Hippodrome Casino on the corner of Leicester Square and it was a Burlesque show. Now there is a theme during this trip for this (I’d seen Gypsy don't forget a few days earlier), so I enter, buy a drink, reasonably priced for about as West End as you can get, and watch people throwing their money away for a while. Now must admit never seen the attraction, partly due to the fact that I don't understand the rules of the games, and partly as I can think of better things to do with my money, but everyone to their own, and this establishment, was very well run, welcoming, and apart form the one bar man to whom I appeared invisible, not easy at 6' 3” with a ponytale! The staff were professional and friendly.
Then it was time to enter the theatre they have in the venue, this is a small room (by theatre standards, seating 180, and my one reservation was that it was table seating. Now being on my own I was a little dubious of being stuck like a gooseberry on a table where everybody else knew each other, but I was taken to my seat and put next to a small table enough room for one other person, and I was lucky enough to meet a nice Scottish couple sat on the other side of the table, who I chatted to before the show started.
Burlesque to the uninitiated is an entertainment performance intended to cause laughter, being latterly known (especially in the US) for bawdy comedy and female striptease.
So I entered the world of the Soho Burlesque Club hosted by the gorgeous and very
naughty Miss Polly Rae ( @themisspollyrae ). Now to set more … reticent or easily
offended readers minds to rest there is no full frontal nudity in this show, it is
very much of the Gypsy Rose Lee school of ecdysiast, (look it up!) ;), you think
you see more than you do, and the acts performing in this show were very professional,
skilled entertainers: Acrobats, fire-
The cast included: Bettsie Bon Bon (Burlesque),Hugo Desmararis (circus performer) and Four Femmes on the Thames (guest vocalists). Now all the acts were entertaining but I must single out Four Femmes .. check out their song “The Shard” on YouTube, and you'll see they are not only excellent singers but very classy and clever songwriters too. Oh and one person who's name doesn't appear on the flyer I have, but who for me stole the show Lilly SnatchDragon a comedy character who acted as Miss Polly's assistant – aide – and friend.
Yes this is naughty entertainment and definitely not for the easily offended, but I found it fun, and it's added to my list of things to do on my subsequent visits.
One thing that did throw me a bit and it wasn't even the show, but the gents on the top floor in this venue has clear glass windows, a sort of pee with a view so to speak, as your looking down onto thousands of people thronging through Leicester Square, strange and they must have been asked about it once or twice as there is a sign in there saying “yes the glass is two way .. but people probably won't know what your doing!” To be honest your so high up that people wouldn't be able to see you and there is no equal height windows nearby.
A great trip, that I really enjoyed, I’m already looking forward to my next theatre, which will be “Broadway to the Bay” at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff where West End stars perform a variety of songs from shows that have been performed at then venue over the 10 years it's been open.
My next trip to London is next February, an up and down in one day for the last two performances of Miss Saigon, and hopefully later in the year another longer trip, finances permitting.
Hope you enjoyed the review and if you want to chat about theatre my details are: