Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Weekend in Barcelona

I think it was the smoothest weekender we've ever been on. The weather forecast was thunderstorms, but it didn't rain at all. We didn't get lost, the plane left on time, and we really loved everything about the wonderful city of  Barcelona.

It was about 11:30pm when we arrived in the centre of town, and the atmosphere was electric. We'd planned to take the metro, but when we saw how vibrant the streets around us were, we chose to walk without even exchanging words.

Before we knew it, we were sitting at an outdoor table drinking an enormous, refreshing jug of sangria (each!) in the middle of main street; La Rambla.

On a high from our great start, we got up early the next morning and explored Las Ramblas - the bohemian sidestreets off the main thoroughfare. Everything seemed to fit perfectly into place. We were thirsty, and suddenly there appeared the most wonderful juice bar. Heaven!

A few hours and two cathedrals later, we arrived at Gaudi's La Pedrera. The architecture and the rooftop centurions made me feel like I'd fallen into a Dr Seuss book.

From the rooftop, we could see back to his most famous work, and Barcelona's most popular attraction, the Sagrada Família, which is we're we'd just walked from. Unfortunately for our photographs, after over 100 years of building it's still far from finished and is very much under construction!

from the roof of  La Pedrera, with Sagrada Família in the distance. 

 From there, another short walk to my favourite of Gaudi's buildings: Casa Battlo.

It's no mistake that the blue scaled roof seems dragonlike: the entire concept is based on St George and the dragon.

On a high for more art, we walked to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and sat riveted to a Bosnian film about the war in Sarajevo for over an hour.

When we left, we found ourselves in one of the funkiest, most bohemian streets I've ever seen. Though barely 100m long, we passed no less than three talented street artists etching their intricate portraits for the benefit of passers-by.

Soon afterwards, we stumbled across a lively market - the best I've seen in Europe. We bought far too many eclectic chocolates and gorged ourselves on them back at the hostel.


After barely 20 mins recharging at the hostel, we were back out. This time to experience some live Flamenco at El Patio Andaluz. It wasn't the authentic Spanish flamenco experience we were hoping for... rather more touristy than that... but still a talented group of dancers and musicians.

The 'star' of the show is Jesus Cortes. A man with hair like Sandra Bullock who we're told has danced for Oprah. It obviously went to his head because his diva vibe was a complete mood killer.

Twice he mumbled loudly in Catalan to the musicians or back-up dancers, prompting embarrassed looks from everyone else on stage. Thankfully, he was Streisand enough to wait nearly an hour before appearing, do three dances in a row, and then leave. We were glad when he did. Though undeniably gifted, his overestimation of his own magnetism was unpleasant and the temperature went back up several degrees after he was gone.

Yes, this is the best photo we got of Jesus Cortes.
The promo flyer photo was dreadful too. It never occurred to us that it was an accurate depiction!

The next morning we wandered into another cathedral - Santa Maria del Mar - on our way to the Picasso museum.

The rose window at Santa Maria del Mar.

Looking up from one of the courtyards at the Picasso museum.

Heading back up to the main part of town, we happened across the coolest street act I've ever seen: Microguagua. A harmonising Spanish reggae group who manage to play the trombone, trumpet, double bass, drums, and two guitars while singing and dancing. We were sucked right in and bought their CD.

From the centre of town, it's only a half hour trip to the summit of Tibidabo; the mountain behind Barcelona. It has a full theme park on top, as we discovered when we arrived.

It also boasts an enormous cathedral.

Looking up to, and inside, the cathedral on the summit of Tibidabo.

For just 2€ you can climb to the top of the cathedral and experience breathtaking panoramic views of the entire city of Barcelona. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting.

One of the stone saints overlooking a town behind Tibidabo.

The last thing we did before leaving Barcelona was head to the beach at Marbella, where I had what I expect will be my last swim of the year. It was icy but wonderful. I was the only swimmer because the waves were so powerful.

I swam for nearly half an hour, until I got bent in half by an enormous wave that also managed to graze my chest along the sand. But it was worth it!

I've been to a lot of wonderful places this year. Barcelona is easily among the best.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Taming of the Shrew

Modern day Brixton may sound an incongruous setting for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, yet celebrated director Robin Norton-Hale's vision pulls it off with flair.

We've been wanting to see more fringe theatre in London and have joined the mailing lists of half a dozen theatres in recent months. Away from the hype and the jukeboxes, the Off-West End scene has a lot to offer.

Our first fringe outing in London, to Southwark Playhouse's Parade, was comfortably one of the top 3 shows I've ever seen. Amped for more, I purchased us season tickets, and tonight we're back to experience Southwark's latest hit; the Bard's Shrew.

Unsurprisingly given the source material, Elexi Walker's Katherine is the clear standout. To deliver perfect Shakespearean dialogue while oozing the sass of a Brixton girl in her 20s is a tall order. That she was able to nail both elements at once demonstrates a clear, magnetic, skill.

The staging is inventive and colourful, cleverly evoking South London without being too cliché through the use of knee-high walls to portray a whole street of shops. Doubtless it won't meet the puritan expectations of every reviewer, but I say there's something appealing to be found in it.

Shakespeare on a week night can be a challenge. Bravo to Southwark for creating an interpretation so freshly engaging without altering the original script.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Life Lesson #35 - Kiwis and Frogs Don't Mix

Wandering the streets of Clapham on a chilly Sunday morning, we couldn't figure out why none of the bars were open. It's the sporting event of the year - enough even to rouse me from slumber - and yet everything was closed.

Eventually we found somewhere. Called 'The Frog'.

"Odd name", thought I, "but at least it's open".
And open it certainly was, at least 150 people with pre-booked tables were bursting the seams of an otherwise nicer-than-most-bars establishments.

I must confess that I know nothing of rugby. My dad took me to a game when I was a kid and I fell asleep. So, I always take my cue from the people around me. It's the next best thing to a guy with a sign that says "cheer".

Except, eventually I realised that I, prompted by everyone around me, was cheering even when the guy running with the ball wasn't wearing black.

Suddenly the penny dropped and I properly took in my surroundings. The nasal accents. The coiffed hairdos. The over-excited guy with cracking red white and blue face paint.

Unnerved by sensationalist media portrayals of sports fans in England, feared for my life. For a split second I even contemplated closeting my true affiliations.

But then I noticed that their faces were as pale, their teeth as nervously bitten, as mine.

It was a tense game for both sides, and from that came a strange respect and camaraderie

The frogs all left as soon as the game was over.

We stayed to watch the fireworks over home as the kiwis took the trophy.

Definitely the most* memorable sporting event of my life.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Review: Top Girls

In a word: fractured.

Top Girls staves off boredom by offering the most disconnected first act I have ever seen.

Caryl Churchill's entire first act is a dinner party of interesting (though crudely caricatured) women from history. The obvious gimmick being that they could never actually have met.

I needn't have worried about how the story would progress: it didn't. The curtain opens on Act II to an unrelated story about the Top Girls Employment Agency. The six actresses explore gender politics of the 1980s in a series of engaging, believable vignettes.

The story wraps up satisfactorily, yet I find myself unable to really recommend the show because of the indulgent, bizarre first act.

The play has grown on me in hindsight. The whimsical introduction does serve create a mindframe that affects how viewers will respond to the more 'real world' scenarios explored later on, which was probably the writer's intention. I just think it would have been better without.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Weekend in Portugal

When I realised that Portugal was the largest country in Western Europe that hadn't been ticked off the list, I made it a bit of a mission to book something. Daniel's upcoming birthday made it the perfect opportunity to go on our first Flat Trip. Just a quick one, flying in to Faro for a relaxing weekend.

We stayed at Clube Praia da Oura in Albufeira, which was monolithic to say the least, and made me thankful we weren't there at the height of summer along with the rest of England!

The pool
The morning was spent at some local markets where Daniel found proper cheese and Zoe bought so many veggies I was convinced her bags would be overweight.

Afterwards, the beach about 100m from our room beckoned.

We spent the afternoon lazing between the beach and the spa pool.

Once the sun started to go down, we headed to nearby Praia da Gale where my friend Emily had recommended a restaurant by the water. Our meals were fresh and delicious.

View of the sunset from our table.

I had my first late-night swim in many years after we left the restaurant, then sat sopping wet and shivering in the back of the car for the short trip home... but it was worth it.

On Sunday morning we woke up to watch the *wait for it* rugby. Watching the All Blacks wallop the Wallabies was an excellent start to the day.

Lunch was spicy Piri Piri Chicken in the town of Albufeira. In Portugal, all chicken tastes like Nando's... I consider this a good thing!

Paul, from our lunch table.

After lunch, we drove inland to the town of Évora, where they have a Chapel made of bones, called Capela dos Ossos. They're all hundreds of years old. Creepy, but interesting.


One thing I found really strange in Portugal was the birds' nests. At first glance they looked like wasp hives, but closer inspection revealed them to be hummingbird-esque habitats. They lined the guttering of every old-fashioned building.


Realising we had half an hour to kill before we were due at the airport, I suggested we check out the local beach. I imagined that a beach just a kilometre from an airport terminal would be a pathetic algae infested estuary, but thought it would make do for killing time. How wrong I was!

Yes, this is just 1km from the airport!

In typical fashion, Ryanair made the trip home rubbish with rude staff and a 3 hour delay. But we got there in the end... and it was a pretty awesome trip considering it didn't even require time off work!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: Josh Groban

Josh Groban is meant to be incredible live, that's all I've ever heard. So, my expectations were unrealistically high.

Good thing Josh Groban is unrealistically talented to match! His voice was perfect. Every bit as emotional and strong as in his studio albums, oozing control. And, in-between songs he was confident and entertaining.

The producers of the show clearly knew that all they needed to showcase was Josh's voice. For all the right reasons, there was no flying set, no tricks or gimmicks, just the singer and his musicians.

Personal favourite moment was Oceano... actually all his Italian songs!

And I do have to admit I welled up a bit during You Raise Me Up, in memory of my cousin Wayne. Hearing that song always takes me right back to the moment that I and the other pallbearers carried him into the church. Hearing it live amplified that feeling even more.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: Idina Menzel

I've been a fan of Idina Menzel since the day I first heard Rent.

I've seen clips of her performing live before and been, well, unimpressed. Sometimes she's flat, and other times she forgets the words. Actually there are quite a few clips to choose from for either of those situations!

But I'm a big enough fan that when I heard about her concert at the Royal Albert Hall, there was no question that I'd be there!

And I have to say, watching her perform reminded me why I love her. She wasn't only pitch-perfect and word-remembering, she was also passionate, funny and controlled. Her chatty interludes between songs were informal and endearingly self-deprecating. It was hilarious hearing her talk about having food thrown at her while performing at a bar mitsvah, and being snubbed by Barbra Streisand after singing for her at a tribute concert.

The highlight of the night (and my month) was hearing her do Defying Gravity. And not the sappy pop version. The proper, unlimited-including full original version in all its theatrical glory.

I can go to bed content, knowing that I was lucky enough to see Idina at her best, in a venue she calls "the most beautiful theatre she's ever performed in".

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: Jersey Boys

The story of the Four Seasons is a great watch, with a top notch cast. Jersey Boys was one of the first jukebox musicals, and it's a special one because, unlike Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You, the story being told is actually the story of the band themselves.

We were sitting in the front row, and the stage was four feet high. Our necks were sore as anything by half time, but the show was well worth it - we could see the beads of sweat on their foreheads.

I definitely recommend this show, and not just if you're of the generation that heard the music the first time round. You'll be surprised how much of it is familiar.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Performance

After 25 years running in London at Her Majesty’s theatre, The Phantom of the Opera breaks its own record for longest running musical with every performance.

The programme informs me that tonight, the Phantom has instructed his managers (Messrs Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh) to hold a celebration of reaching a quarter century “lest a reversal in their fortunes should occur”. 

The Royal Albert Hall after the show

And where else to put on the three celebratory performances but the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps London’s closest equivalent in grandeur to the Paris Opera House itself. Apparently this building even has a Phantom of its own.

Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo take on the demanding lead roles with passion and strength. It seems fitting to see these deserving actors come full circle, after they originated the older versions of Christine and the Phantom in the missable sequel, Love Never Dies.

The chorus are enormous and impressive. Masquerade was particularly mesmerising. I'm told there were 300 people on stage (including the orchestra) and even the private boxes to the side of the stage contained 'patrons' in full costume which add a further dimension to the already immersive experience.

The staging has been redesigned to work with the unique demands of the Royal Albert Hall. One disappointment is that the chandelier doesn’t fall, however it's forgiveable considering how ambitious a project it was to stage the entire theatrical production in this concert venue, rather than just a concert version.

The Set Designer has made up for the reduction in set pieces with large LCD panels and an enormous gauze with projections. At times it's distracting, but overall I felt it was very well rendered and did an impressive job of standing in for some  pieces I would have thought irreplacable, such as the curtain, the mirror, and the graveyard. A few scenes were even enhanced by it - particularly the "All I Ask of You" scene on the roof of the Opera House, which was given a tremendous energy from the projection of the actual view they would have seen behind them, complete with a picturesque but appropriately understated sunset that melted away as the song continued.

After the curtain call, I gripped Paul's hand and refused to stand up, saying "I want Andrew Lloyd Webber to come out and do a speech!"

I wasn't disappointed.

Moments later, the music crescendoed and the creator himself walked on stage. He welcomed the original creative team and producers (including Cameron Mackintosh) to the stage, followed by the entire original London cast (with the exception of three who have passed away).

Then a microphone appeared, smoke began to billow, and Sarah Brightman walked on stage to sing the title song. She was supported by not one, but five Phantoms: Colm Wilkinson, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow, Peter Jöback and Ramin Karimloo. It sent chills down my spine.

Sarah Brightman and the five Phantoms
Afterwards, the Phantoms remained on stage and performed the Music of the Night together. Both casts joined in the final few lines. 

The finale alone was worth the ticket price. Phantom is not my favourite show in the world, but even I was completely overwhelmed by the opportunity to see the original cast take to the stage together once again.

A thoroughly successful and highly professional production. Mr Lloyd Webber let slip that tonight was the first time the cast had ever run Act II. You wouldn't have known it.