Three and a half nights of London theatre – Part 1

London is my favorite place on the planet, not least because it’s where I can OD on theater. This time, I had to book way in advance to be sure of tickets to the two plays the RSC has mounted adapting Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels. These shows were at the end of my week in London and the subject of Part 2 of this subject, so there were a couple of other nights to fill in the meantime.

On my first night, I was dismayed to find that Richard III with Martin Freeman was sold out. For those not familiar with London theatre practices, a small number of tickets are held aside for purchase on the day of the performance but only in person, usually in cash. These typically are offered starting around 10 am and disappear in a matter of minutes. The only other chance for a seat is to “queue for returns”, which means that anyone holding a ticket but unable to use it can contact the box office, who will resell the seat. No refunds, but it seems much more civilized than having people clogging up the sidewalk in front of the theatre trying to sell off extra tickets. I hadn’t been in town for the 10am thing, hadn’t even been aware of the play and didn’t feel like taking a chance on a return, mostly because the theatre where the play was being done is a really small one. London, like New York, is awash with musicals, a genre I’m not especially fond of (not sure why; that’s just the way it is). The National didn’t have anything unmissable going, either, so I decided to walk around the West End to see what I might find. No opera, no ballet. Hmmm.

In the end, I opted for Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, mostly because I remembered a similar play in NY years ago that Dad had gotten a big kick out of. Also, John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory’s Girl) was in this show and I figured if he was in it, it would be enjoyable. Weelll… not so much. On the plus side, the stagecraft was clever and the actors’ timing was impeccable, broad movements kept perfectly in sync with sound effects. On the (big) minus side, this was too too much British music hall slapstick, nudge-nudge, wink-wink for my taste. Sinclair played the always suffering, stiff-upper-lip Jeeves. The rest of the audience was truly enjoying the performance (complete with scenes requiring male characters to cross-dress). I suspect many in the house remembered similar shows from childhood – likely accounting for the extension of the run. I was not among these enthusiastic playgoers and I must admit to doing something I don’t recall ever having done in my life. I left at the interval! Sorry, John. Fry and Laurie were not, as I recall, ever as uncomfortably dopey as this. A tiny reward for my premature departure – saw Tim Pigott-Smith (best remembered as the nasty officer from Jewel in the Crown and currently the voice of Viking River Cruises) walking along the street, possibly coming from rehearsal for King Charles III, a play that hadn’t opened yet. Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Didn’t say hello, just a moment of recognition. This took care of Friday.

On Saturday, I got a recommendation for a show I really did enjoy  – Epstein, the Man Who Made the Beatles. Just two actors, one set and a thoughtful look at the guy who arguably changed pop music forever and perhaps offering some clues as to how the Beatles’ music and lyrics tapped into Brian’s own yearnings, at a time when his sexual orientation kept him thoroughly closeted. Those longings may have been the key to the whole phenomenon. The entire play presents just one night late in Epstein’s life, after the Beatles stopped playing live and his involvement with them declined. Brian’s apartment, all white walls, sleek furniture and modern decorative touches shows a control of environment that Epstein felt less and less at the point in his life that this fictional encounter is set.

Andrew Lancel, as Brian Epstein looked similar enough that video projections of real footage mixed with ‘faked’ stuff didn’t jar. At one point, Brian falls into sudden rage; the contrast between a man mastering his emotions and someone whose demeanor changed so drastically and quickly was stark and believable, the air of comfortable assurance in the flat vanishing and the space becomes oppressively claustrophobic. One other point – I’m sure I’ve seen Lancel before but program credits didn’t ring any bells. A terrific performance.

Will Finlason’s character stepped outside the fourth wall to speak to the audience, both at the start and end of the play. He was identified only as ‘This Boy’. He presents himself to Brian as a young (post-Beatles) lad from Liverpool who thinks the full story of the Beatles’ success must include Epstein’s own role and genius. Brian has brought him home hoping for sex and that electric undercurrent pops up throughout the play. This Boy is blond, slightly angelic – Brian’s idea of the perfect rent boy? Will was definitely watchable and gave an endearing rendition of Baby It’s You, complete with guitar. (No mention that the song was written by Burt Bacharach; lighten up!)

By the second half remembering, or thinking you knew, how Brian fitted in (or didn’t) with the Beatles tribe and how he ended up, increased awareness of the story hurtling to its conclusion; an awful, gathering cloud of sorrow. Most of the audience looked to be one age group – they/we came of age with the Beatles and Brian. Not a whole lot of Beatles music until one scene near the end; just enough to take you down memory (or Penny) lane and maybe leave you there for just a moment before the sound fades and you’re back in the present of the flat. Other groups Brian managed came in for mention, like Gerry and the Pacemakers.

I’m still searching for the playscript. Foyle’s (in its spiffy, spacious new Charing Cross location) didn’t have it, the bookshop at the National Theatre on the South Bank is temporarily gone during current redevelopment and the website for NYC’s Drama Bookshop came up empty. Rats.

At least the Epstein play left me sure I’d seen some very good theatre – a good vibe to get me through the rest of the weekend. Gary, the guide for a walking tour (post to come) I went on earlier in the day, gave me the tip. Thanks, Gary! You wouldn’t happen to know where I could lay my hands on the printed play, do you?

See Part 2 for my thoughts on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

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A sea of poppies at the Tower of London

My most recent trip was filled with a wide variety of experiences and locales. It will take a while to sort through the photos, journal notes and other hasty scribbles to make sense and produce some decent posts, especially since so many photos turned out to be less than even vaguely useful. That may make for several new blog posts under the heading of Pictures in My Mind’s Eye, a category I haven’t added to for quite a while.

As a starter, here are some photos from the moat around the Tower of London which is being filled with almost nine hundred thousand red poppies in remembrance of WWI.

poppies at the Tower 1

poppies at the Tower 1

For some reason, when I first heard about this effort, I thought the poppies were real, live ones. It may have been because of the cascade that flows down the wall from a window

blood red cascading down the Tower wall

blood red cascading down the Tower wall

and possibly also because the projected completion date is so much later in the calendar than the start date. Watching the volunteers assembling and ‘planting’ these ceramic flowers in this Paul Cummins installation made it obvious that filling the moat with real flowers would not have been as vivid and might not have been successful – Mother Nature having a mind of her own. The poppies are disassembled, so the volunteers need to put the pieces together – the stalk, some sort of stopper at the end so the red flower stays put, and a washer to keep the thing from shimmying back down the stick. Then stick it in the ground. Hard to tell if this last bit was the hardest part – after all, the moat has been settled for a thousand years, give or take.

'planting' poppies

‘planting’ poppies

The project is selling the poppies online for delivery after the exhibit ends on 11 November 2014.

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London Tube updates – 13-14 September 2014

In addition to the usual construction and rehabbing disruptions, this Sunday sees the Tour of Britain in London, a bicycle race of 88 km through Whitehall, Westminster and the City. Click on the Tour link to get the route map, should you want to avoid the mess or find a spot to watch and cheer.

Here’s the link with the rest of the info.

The Chancery Lane station on the Central line will be shut on Sunday.

The only other Underground closure this w/e is on the Northern line but it’s a big one – the elongated insect-like lines from Charing Cross and Moorgate north through Kings X to Hampstead and High Barnet. Realistically, the closure extends to Embankment, since the Northern line is not stopping there. Having Embankment out of the picture made for a constant rethink when I was in London last week, though the fact that my room was equidistant between Embankment and Charing Cross made life a bit easier. This new wrinkle would make my location less than ideal were I there this weekend.

London Tramlink closure all weekend between Morden Rd and Ampere Way

London Overground has no service between New Cross Gate and Crystal Palace/West Croydon both days and between Camden Rd and Willesden Junction via W Hampstead on Sunday.

Reminders -

Embankment – Bakerloo and Northern line trains not stopping until early Nov 2014.

Covent Garden – Exit only until mid-November 2014. Also, on Saturdays and Sundays, westbound trains not stopping.

Bond Street - Jubilee line trains will not stop here until early December 2014.

Gloucester Road – Piccadilly line trains not stopping until mid-December 2014


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Magpie update – August / September 2014

In many ways, summer is possibly my least favorite season. Sure, there is no snow to shovel and late sunsets mean more time to be out and about. But, especially in terms of travel, summer is when I’m most likely to stay stateside, putter in the garden (such as it is) and look forward to autumn. Summers can be beastly hot – which for me means anything above 75F or about 23C, everywhere worth going to is likely to be super crowded with families taking advantage of school vacations to get out of town and regular folks escaping the office for some R&R with some sun added, not to mention the fact that prices for accommodation and transportation are higher- the old supply and demand nonsense. A veritable zoo at every turn. I just can’t stand it.

This year was different, though. I blame Thomas Cromwell. Or Hilary Mantel. The latter has written two books of a trilogy regarding the former. Fascinating stories of real historical figures spun together with imagined but totally believable conversations and encounters, many based on historical record. Each book in excess of 400 pages yet reading at the pace of one of those (much shorter) junky romance novels.

See, these books have been distilled into two plays and are being staged in London. They were originally supposed to run only through the first week of September of this year. After a longish argument with myself over whether to get tickets – after all, they were (and are) sure to be a sellout. Maybe they would come to NYC or even get slated for satellite broadcast in theatres as many National Theatre productions have been. I could save myself a ton of money not to mention hassle and uprooting of my cats’ routine, by crossing my fingers and waiting for developments. In the end, the decision was made to produce the stories again for film, probably to be broadcast on PBS in the US but by then I had booked a ticket for each show for the first week of September and began to think about what sort of trip I could build around this slightly silly decision.

Once I had the ticket vouchers, there were other events that came on to my radar. For all the times I’ve been to Edinburgh, I’d never been to the Tattoo. This is a bagpipe and dance extravaganza held each year in August on the forecourt of the Castle and it’s always one of the hottest tickets going. August. Another internal discussion ensued. If I was gonna be in the UK anyway, maybe this year would be my best shot at seeing the Tattoo. Besides – Scotland in summer is cooler than London; how hot could it really get?

As I said, this event books up fast and by the time I’d decided to go, there were only a couple of dates available and only two of those had any reasonably priced seats left. Then something really odd happened. I booked a top ticket for a different date than I had been planning. That’s what I get for playing around on a website that helpfully logs all your viewed possibilities and not paying more attention to the log. Then I almost booked a flight for the same date, which would have meant missing the thing!

Anybody here see a brain missing its owner?

So, long story a bit shorter for now, if you love spectacle and particularly if you love bagpipes, YOU MUST GO!

In between the Tattoo and that final stint in London, I added several days in Orkney – a stunning group of islands just a few miles off the north coast of Scotland and reachable by ferry in less than 90 minutes. Phenomenal group of Neolithic sites, the most famous probably being Skara Brae but for my money, the most fascinating turned out to be the Broch of Gurness. Even more exciting for archaeology nuts like me, new sites are being found all the time… I just missed an opportunity to visit the Ness of Brodgar, a huge new dig that had just been closed up for the year.

There was the successful quest to visit the Kelpies – the full size metal sculptures whose miniature selves came to Bryant Park a few months ago. Another stunning attraction which, singly, has created a tourism business in quiet little Falkirk, Scotland.

Back to Edinburgh for an overnight before flying over to Berlin. Why Berlin? Twin answer – it’s been on my list recently, to see both East and West and it had the cheapest plane ticket of any destination north of the Alps (summer, remember).

Berlin is amazing and, like everywhere else I’ve ever been, with the possible exception of King’s Lynn, a place which I could not give nearly enough time. I loved Berlin even though the guy at Tourist Info at the airport sent me to the wrong flippin’ UBahn station. Ha! I sorted that out and the extra hour on the UBahn system came in mighty handy over the subsequent days.

A five hour walking tour took me everywhere I could think of, including a big stretch of properly pathetic-looking Wall, Checkpoint Charlie (now a rather disneyfied photo-op location overshadowed by, natch, a McDonald’s. Having left the overcrowded #100 public bus at the Reichstag, I saw a poster for an outdoor sound and light show telling the story of Germany’s Parliamentary evolution, from 1871 thru the present day. It was nice to be out in the evening, hanging out with a bunch other people. English subtitles (the international language of tourism) and rousing, almost Wagnerian music and lighting effects.

So now I find myself in London; still my favorite city on the planet. I’m sitting in a dorm room at the London School of Economics, with the best WiFi I’ve had this whole trip, well, except for yesterday AM at the Gatwick Yotel. It feels like I’m on retreat – no TV, a room by IKEA on the ninth floor, overlooking a grubby courtyard with a symphony of city-improving jackhammers gliding through the window with the breeze.

But enough of this reverie. It’s past 11AM, I’ve been rattling on since before 9 and it’s time for a break. Tickets to collect, postal envelopes to get for mailing crap home. And did I mention? there’s never been a day that was warmer than about 75F.

Who knew?

This’ll be it until I get back to the  States, but I’ll clean this up then and hope to post more… fewer words and lots of photos.

Auf wiedersehn. I think.

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London Tube updates – w/e of 30-31 August

This weekend sees only a few closures -

the Chancery Lane station on the Central line is shut,

Jubilee line is closed between Waterloo and Stanmore

No service on the Metropolitan line between Aldgate and Northbridge/ Uxbridge; Piccadilly line will have some enhanced service between Rayners Lane and Uxbridge to relieve some of the aggro.

The biggest pain-inna-neck if

you’re out and about on foot, however, will be the (likely) ridiculous scrum around the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank today (Satruday). Seventy couples will be tying the knot there. Flash mob matrimony?

Sorry, no links today. Go to TfL’s website if you need more info.

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news from Prague – summer 2014

Here are a bunch of interesting tidbits with info on what’s going on in and around Prague – for those who don’t click on my Prague HOT LINK!! Some originally noted in Prague Post.

Leave it to the Czechs to brag about a breeding program for lizards!

Something one-of-a-kindish – Whisky Live Prague in late September. (When you click on this link, there’s an irritating pop-up; click on the right-hand box to access; it’s in Czech, even though you’re on the English language page. [Bizarre! Divný!])

See the list of 16 sites in Czech Republic which are seeking UNESCO World Heritage status.

If you’re in Prague in October, check out the Signal Festival – Prague lights up!

I wonder if there’s some sort of hidden message on this one – Prague Zoo’s hippos are getting corporate sponsorship… from Hilton.

For those who don’t expect to travel to China and/or who may have missed the Terracotta Warriors when they visited NYC in 2012, two of them will be on display at Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables.

New food tours in Prague show there’s more to Czech cuisine than klobasa and sauerkraut; mind you, there’s nothing wrong with klobasa and sauerkraut!

Just opened – Letní Letna acrobatic / circus / theatre festival. Runs for two weeks and a bit.

Posted in Czech Republic, Eastern Europe, Europe food & wine, European art, European festivals, General magpie travel, News from Europe, Prague travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

London Tube closures for weekend of 16-17 August 2014

Here are this weekend’s Tube closures.

Metropolitan line – Chalfont & Latimer to Chesham closure between 11.30 and 17.15 both days.

District line – Aldgate East to Bromley-by-Bow and Barking to Upminster

Jubilee line – Sunday only – Waterloo to Finchley Road

Hammersmith/City line – Moorgate to Barking

London Tramlink – service outage from East Croydon to Sandilands thru Sun 17 Aug

London Overground – both days -Highbury & Islington to Clapham Junction/New Cross/Crystal Palace/West Croydon. Sunday only – S Tottenham to Barking and Sydenham to Crystal Palace. Early Sunday shutdown between Gospel Oak and Stratford at 21.30.

TfL has updated the info on the Hammersmith flyover work –  “… work is ahead of schedule … weekend closures are no longer required on the westbound carriageway. Any additional work will be done overnight. Yahoo!

The Hogarth flyover in Chiswick is down through the end of August and there’s the usual mashup at Wembley for the football.

Bus schedules and road use - Click here for road works, traffic snarls and road-closing events. Putney Bridge closure lasts until October, road works near Aldgate will mess up southbound Minories until May 2015 (lovely) and road closures in and around Piccadilly, the Mall, Whitehall late Sunday morning for a parade.

Reminders -

new – Chesham station is closed both days this w/e between 11.30 and 17.15.

Embankment – Bakerloo and Northern line trains not stopping until early Nov 2014.

Covent Garden – Exit only until mid-November 2014. Also, on Saturdays and Sundays, westbound trains not stopping.

Paddington – Exit only from Bakerloo line until late August 2014.

Bond Street - Jubilee line trains will not stop here until early December 2014.

Gloucester Road – Piccadilly line trains not stopping until mid-December 2014

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