Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: Children of Eden

Stephen Schwartz’s lost musical.

All theatre geeks (especially those fond of that other show he wrote; Wicked) have heard of Children of Eden, but few have seen it. After all, a musical about the first few chapters of Genesis doesn’t sound immediately gripping.

This is a special one-night-only charity gala performance, and it’s brought together a killer cast of West End stars. The Prince of Wales Theatre is usually the home of Mamma Mia,  so the staging for this performance is pared back – a few large blocks on the stage and assorted lightbulbs dangling. This simple approach works a treat and allows the actors to really own the stage.

Opening the show are Oliver Thornton (Adam/Felicia in Priscilla) and Louise Dearman (Glinda in Wicked) as Adam and Eve. Thornton’s performance is good, but a little self-conscious. His voice, though excellent, is slightly too thin for the role. Dearman, on the other hand, proves herself capable far beyond the (already vocally demanding) role of cutesy Glinda. She effortlessly navigates through complicated Schwartzian melodies, bringing a caramel smooth Streisand sound to the role without losing that essential feeling of Eve’s humanity. She’s flawless, and by far the standout of the night.

The other conspicuously brilliant performance comes from Gareth Gates as Cain. I was sceptical when I read about his casting. Coming runner-up to Will Young in the first series of Pop Idol doesn’t exactly qualify someone to perform with the cream of London theatre. But I was wrong. Gareth is a theatre singer first, pop singer second. He approaches the role in Ramin Karimloo style: nimble, powerful, graceful, and impressive.

Gareth Gates as Cain.
I’m grateful when he kills his brother, because a woman I can only assume is Abel’s mum is sitting next to me and won’t stop snapping pictures of his every move on her very bright mobile phone. She leaves at half time, which I’m also grateful for because she isn’t exactly built like a ballerina and has been spilling over onto my seat for most of the first act.

Act II is less remarkable than Act I. There are some decent melodies and performers, but none so promising as Eve or Cain and their first act ballads. Still, the chorus sound wonderful together – voices fusing far more smoothly than you usually see when a group of soloists perform choral work.

The best moments in the second act come from Laura Samuels as servant girl Yonah, and Brenda Edwards (Killer Queen, We Will Rock You) as Mama Noah. Though she stole the second act with her gospel number, Edwards looked bored whenever she wasn’t singing. A shame.

After the performance, the director invites the writer of the show to the stage. I just about wet myself.

Unfortunately, it’s not Stephen Schwartz. It’s whatshisname who wrote the unremarkable book. But this disappointment is quickly forgotten when the reigning queen of London theatre, Kerry Ellis, takes the stage to finish the evening with an original song that’s been written for her; the somewhat unoriginally titled “Heal the World”. Her voice, of course, brings down the house.

Overall, a fantastic performance by true theatre stars who deserve every accolade they have heaped upon them.

Kerry Ellis.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leo in London: Part I

They’re calling it the greatest exhibition in history. More Leonardo da Vinci works in one place than ever before - including during his lifetime.

Of course, it sells out in record time. The National Gallery opens extended hours for three months and still sells all the advance tickets in less than a week. We miss out.

But there’s a glimmer of hope aside from the scalpers on eBay.

800 tickets per day are still available. In America they’d have a lottery. They believe everyone should have a chance. In England, they believe whoever puts in the most effort should end up on top. So they sell these tickets on a first come, first served basis.

Which is why Paul arrives at 7am, three hours before the ticket office even opens.

By 7:30, he’s been informed that he’s in the ‘maybe’ zone. He prays that the several hundred people who arrived even earlier are all nuns and widowers who won’t use their plus one, leaving his own entry within reach.

He sets about making friends with those around him. There’s a couple from Manchester who caught the train down just for this exhibition. None expected that 7am would put them so far behind the crowd.

The line starts to leak as people give up in favour of a hot coffee or a toilet break. Paul and his posse soldier on, blinded to their inevitable failure by an attempt to show solidarity.

The gates close around 1:30pm. The tickets have sold out about 20 people ahead of Paul. The group have waited for six and a half hours together and can’t bear to leave so soon. So they keep waiting (for some unknown reason).

A guy approaches Paul.

“My friend can’t come anymore. My ticket is for right now. I know you’ve been waiting for ages, so I don’t want to make any money off you. Just give me face value and it’s yours”.

Paul has no cash.

He comes home.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Matilda

From the moment you enter the Cambridge Theatre, you are entranced by the magic of Matilda. Rather than sport a traditional curtain, the entire proscenium is speckled with thousands of coloured books. In fact, most of the set pieces are constructed like intricate bookshelves.

The entire way through Matilda the Musical, I was thanking the universe that there are still some creative teams out there who are willing to bring children's theatre to life in a lateral way, rather than handing everything to the audience on a platter (Shrek, anyone?).

No musical can be respected without great music. And the real creative genius behind Matilda is Tim Minchin, who proves his syllable-squeezing musical comedy act is just as engaging without the potty humour he became famous for at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Almost every song in Matilda the Musical is genius. Fitting for a story about a child prodigy. Minchin deftly handles Dahl's rough-edged style - like the musical equivalent of Quentin Blake's illustrations. He understands the way kids' minds work. He understands what makes Matilda special; both the character and the story.

Bertie Carvel's Miss Trunchbull is inspired. Rather than slip into to flamboyant pantomime drag, he simply inhabits the 50 year old headmistress in all her former-Olympian glory.

This is the best new show to come out of London since Billy Elliot. Actually, since before Billy Elliot.
The only slight disappointments are that Miss Honey's character isn't given any juicy songs, and that the big finale in the Trunchbull's house is traded off for a more Russian showdown.

That doesn't stop Matilda being the show to beat for this year's Olivier award. And, dare I say it, next year's Tony.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Weekend in Copenhagen

Copenhagen's central station feels like a doll's house. The large beams are painted dark brown, so they resemble wood. The Vikings would approve, comments Kat.

This is our first trip abroad with Kat and Mikey - two of our best London friends. They hail from Adelaide. We got to know them when Kat was in Paul's Flight Centre training group, and have caught up with them (and a few others from the group) regularly ever since.

The travel agents arrive in Copenhagen.

The forecast for this weekend is dismal. Colder than London. Greyer than London. Cloudier than London. We see two umbrellas blown inside out before we even reach our hotel.

But we're happy to put up with whatever Mother Nature has in store for us, because we're stoked to be here. And because it might snow.

We walk around for ages attempting to find traditional Danish food. We see Thai, Australian, Indian, McDonald's, KFC... but no Danish. Then, the motherlode!

Right next to Tivoli Gardens; Tivoli Hallen is a family-run, traditional Danish restaurant. It's so full of Danes that we're worried we won't get a seat.


After nibbling on the dark bread, most of us order traditional Danish open sandwiches. Except Mikey, who has a thing for ordering the most traditional, weirdest thing on the menu. He goes for herring:

It's basically three pieces of raw fish... not entirely my cup of tea... but I wanted to sample a bite and was surprised to find it was quite delicious!

When we stepped outside, we found ourselves in the thick of a snowstorm. The camera lens really can't capture the thousands of thick, crushed ice blobs hurtling towards the street.

Ny Carlsberg Gyptotek proved a welcome respite from the cold. After bundling our wet coats into lockers, we spent nearly two hours exploring the sculpture gallery. A particular highlight was the small room with a domed roof that amplified the tiniest sound if you stood in the right spot. Mikey and I were occupied for ages.

Some of the statues in the Glyptotek.

Tired from our early start, we spent an hour unwinding at the hotel before heading out for dinner.

I was disappointed when we walked past the lights of Tivoli - the world's second oldest amusement park closes over the coldest months. As does the world's oldest amusement park, Bakken, just down the road, which opened in 1583. I guess we'll just have to come back!

Unable to find any traditional Danish food (our lunch place had closed for the day), we tried to find a non-traditional option that still had a story worth telling. Eventually, we ended up in the first Indian restaurant in Scandinavia. That's a win, in my book.

The next morning the weather was a little more permitting, and we explored some of the sights of Copenhagen - starting with the canals.

Mikey about to test out his underwater camera.

The cobbled streets of Copenhagen.

This door to the palace was originally created in case the princess married a Nordic giant.

By the gardens, we were suddenly interrupted  by a large band of marching soldiers. The changing of the guard here is quite a spectacle.

While Paul got a head start at the art gallery, Kat, Mikey and I headed to the distinctive spire of Our Saviour's Church. Spying it earlier in the day, I'd imagined it was a fairground slide. The reality is nearly as cool - it's an external spiral staircase offering 360° views of the city.

Unfortunately, the spire was closed for winter... but we were still glad we came because the inside of the church was fascinatingly Lutheran.

The canal by the church.

Waiting for the bus, we realised we were standing next to the most delicious looking Danish bakery in the world.

This is called a Christianhavnstaetre. A nutty cake with strawberry cream and fresh berries. Perfection.

Where to get lunch was the easiest decision of the day.

Walking through the park towards the art gallery, we got caught in another snowstorm. Mikey and I challenged each other to catch as many snowflakes on our tongues as we could.

I'm not sure who won. But it was fun.

Having trouble bringing ourselves to go inside the Danish National Gallery.

As soon as we left the gallery, Mikey grabbed Paul and they ran off skidding in the snow.

Within minutes, Paul was fulfilling a childhood dream...

Fulfilling one of my childhood dreams, we then hopped on the train to North Zealand.
It's not Abel Tasman's original name-giving hometown (that's in Holland), but it's pretty cool.

Kat and I polished off the Christianhavnstaerte in no time.

In North Zealand, we visited our third gallery of the weekend: the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

The view across the water to Sweden alone was worth the entry price.

It was dark when we left.

Again unable to find Danish, we enjoyed delicious Thai before leaving for the airport.

This was comfortably one of our best weekenders ever. The city, or the people? I think both.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Shrek

Shrek seems a more logical fit for the stage than other movie adaptations like The Lion King, Ghost or Legally Blonde.

Perhaps that's why the writers were so lazy? They were too comfortable? When a hermit character like Shrek starts to sing about his feelings, you know there's something wrong. When every single song is about his feelings... there's something very wrong!

It's like the old saying; "don't tell me you're funny, make me laugh!"

Unfortunately, this show didn't make many people laugh. The actors mostly had poor comic timing (particularly Donkey), and the only jokes that landed were half-baked regurgitations of one-liners from the movie.

Why, when the original movie is so genuinely humorous, would they add only fart jokes, while finding room for loads of faux-sentimental moments?

Unfortunately, this is the worst kind of lowest common denominator entertainment. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Sure, kids might enjoy it. But only because they don't know any better...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ice Sculptures in London!

After missing the ice sculptures twice in Russia, Paul couldn't resist surprising me when he found out there was a day long competition and exhibition right here in London!

It was a great surprise, and I was amazed at the detail in the frozen water! My favourite was this downhill skier.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The London A Cappella Festival

A few months ago, I found out that the A Cappella group who do the background music on glee are a London group called the Swingle Singers.

Looking them up, I found out about the London A Cappella Festival. We booked tickets on the spot for their show tonight with another group, the Vasari Singers.

We were by far the youngest in the audience, but we didn't care! The music was beautiful. A lot of it was original. It amazes me what the human voice is capable of! Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

I've never read the book or seen the movie of Howl's Moving Castle, so I had no idea what to expect from the play.

I read a review that raved about Stephen Fry's narration and the innovative way of projecting the set onto a 3D cardboard backdrop.

The opening moments were certainly promising. The projection truly was clever and engaging. But, from the moment the real actors stepped on stage, I felt like I was watching a pantomime.

The projection works in isolation, but doesn't add to live action any more than a painted backdrop does.

This made me think about other shows that use projection, like War Horse, Ghost, and the revised Phantom. I realised that the same was true: projection can add a layer of depth, but doesn't seem able to replace a set piece without damaging the illusion.

Unfortunately, the show didn't really improve from there. I found myself glad when it ended less than an hour and a half later.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Life Lesson #39 - Taking the Long Way Home

Today I learned never to fly overnight and expect to go to work the next day.

It seemed like a flawless plan, except for the part where I had to set my alarm for 2:45am. Ironically, with the four hour time difference, this was actually 10:45pm London time. Yep. I was up and moving before most of my friends and colleagues went to bed the night before!

The only part I was worried about was getting through immigration. I was warned in advance to keep my head down and walk quickly. The scary people must have been home sick today, because we didn't have a sniff of a problem.

We took off about half an hour late because the plane had been covered in snow and ice overnight, so they had to wash it off with antifreeze.

We were in Munich for two hours, then boarded on time for our flight to London. We sat on the plane for over an hour before takeoff, without any explanation.

Our scheduled landing time came and went, then the time we should have landed based on when we took off came and went... we had no idea why we weren't at Heathrow yet.

Then the pilot came on and said "bad news, folks. We're being diverted to Stansted!" The one time I get to fly out of a decent airport, and I get rerouted to the worst one. Wicked.

When we landed, the pilot came over the intercom and said "I have zero information, and there's nobody here to help us". An hour and a half later, he still had zero information.

When we were finally able to get off the plane, Paul noticed that they didn't appear to be refueling or offloading any luggage.

After an hour of waiting for our bags (the one time we fly with bags!) with the other 150 passengers, we were getting restless.

Finally a guy appears and says "we'll have your bags out soon".

We hear this many, many times over the next four hours while we're stuck between passport control and customs with one snack machine, no water until 3pm, and 150 other grouchy displaced travellers, most of whom had missed connecting flights all over the world.

There was nobody from the airline present, nobody from Stansted gave a toss because we weren't one of their flights, and the phone helplines didn't know a thing about it.

I started to feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

By the time we actually got our bags I was completely wired. I still wanted to go to work just so my day wouldn't be a complete waste of time.

So I did. I arrived at 4:30pm, just 18 hours after I left my hostel in St Petersburg. I could almost have got to work in Auckland in that time!

We're trying to get compensation for lost wages and displacement from Lufthansa... emphasis on trying. Let's just say I won't be travelling with them again anytime soon!

Oh well, I guess it could have been worse...

Monday, January 2, 2012

St Petersburg

I wasn't sure what to expect from the Russian overnight train between Moscow and St Petersburg. What I definitely didn't expect was a luxurious private cabin! Score!

Arriving in St Petersburg after the best night's sleep I've ever had on a train, boat or plane.

The walk to our hostel gave us an incredible view of St Petersburg. I was surprised at how different the newer port city was from Moscow. It's a beautiful city, and reminded me of other Eastern European destinations like Prague.

As I looked around me and observed the distinct lack of tourists, I found myself feeling grateful for the complicated visa restrictions that see ordinary holidaymakers putting Russia in the too hard basket.

Just casually passed this on our stroll to the hostel...

We didn't think we'd manage to squeeze St Petersburg into our fleeting Russia trip. The length of our trip was controlled by Paul's boss, who wasn't very flexible on Christmas leave. But we couldn't bear to go to Russia without visiting The Hermitage, the largest art gallery in the world, so we decided the visit was worth it even for a single day.

The Hermitage was closed.

This time, it was entirely our own fault... it's closed every Monday of the year and we didn't check!

Luckily, the State Russian Museum was open. It was so enormous, and so fascinating, that I can barely comprehend the size of The Hermitage!

And it's right next to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

My favourite story about the Church on Spilled Blood is that during the Soviet era, Stalin turned it into... a potato warehouse!

By the time we left the museum, it was already dark. This is a running theme for us!

We found a little Russian restaurant to enjoy our last night in this fascinating country, and stayed there for hours before slipping back to our hostel for an early night before an early rise.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Last Day in Moscow: Ice and Snow

We opened our windows this morning to a glorious sight:

We packed up and checked out quickly, eager to see how the night of snowfall had altered the landscape.

The Kremlin in Izmailovo, next to our hotel.

We headed back into the centre of town to see Lenin's memorial (which has his frozen body), as it had been closed on the other days of our visit.

The Kremlin looked like something from Narnia.
Unfortunately, Lenin's memorial was still closed on New Year's Day (contrary to online reports).

But it was worth coming in to see the white blanket over now familiar landmarks.

I think I'm a wee bit obsessed with St Basil's Cathedral.

After saying goodbye to Red Square, we trekked to the train station to pick up our overnight train tickets and drop off our luggage. We got lost, of course, but I won't bore you with the details!

By the time we finally made it to the Pushkin Museum it was early afternoon. For once, we managed to visit something that was actually open! Although they had a strange entrance system that involved only letting in about 10 people every 15 minutes... so the queue was over two hours long. And it wasn't half cold outside! It was deserted inside. I felt sorry for those still waiting.

Thankfully after the long wait, the museum was impressive. They had a breathtaking Caravaggio exhibition on.

The Christ Savior Orthodox Cathedral was glorious across the road as we waited to enter the Pushkin.
It had been dark for a long time by the time we left the gallery. We headed straight to Gorky Park; the Muscovite equivalent of a Winter Wonderland.

An enormous field of rather sad looking snowmen greeted us.

Making up for the missed childhood photo op.
Unfortunately, the incredible looking ice skating arena was closed for the day. We were disappointed, but not as much as the hordes of Russian families with ice skates. I can't figure out why so many attractions in Moscow publicise old opening hours, or don't put holiday season closures on their website. It does get a little frustrating!

The ice we'd hoped to skate on...

Ah well. Nothing like a mulled wine in a cute little pop-up café to make up for it.

Our train left Moscow just before midnight, bound for St Petersburg. I love sleeping on trains, knowing I'll be hurtling across the countryside while I sleep.

New Year, Red Square

There was a point when I was genuinely concerned that we wouldn't make it in.

The crowd was thick and pushy. There were more Russian military than I ever thought I'd see. They were standing with linked arms blocking every entrance to Red Square. Three rows of them, and a dozen metal detectors stood between me and the whole reason I came here.

At about 11:56pm, the guards finally parted. I felt like I was leading a revolution as we surged into the already overflowing square. We became caught in the human equivalent of a rip, and it pulled us right into the centre of Red Square. I found myself wondering if anyone had been trampled. It didn't stop pushing us forward until we were packed in so tightly that, after I picked up the camera, I couldn't return my arms to my side until after the display had finished.

The Kremlin clock tower struck midnight.

And then suddenly...

The fireworks were magnificent. The mist in the sky built up a haze behind that reflected every exploding colour.

The moment they were over, the crowd surged in the other direction.

Those of us in the middle were cordoned off by another row of army men with linked arms, and their grim supervisors behind them glaring at us. After several minutes the people all around us starting pushing into the arms of the men in uniform, surging until they lost their grip and we broke through, escaping into the crowd. I didn't look behind me. Someone told me you shouldn't make eye contact.

The nearest metro station was, predictably, closed due to overcrowding. We found ourselves wandering in any direction, hoping we'd stumble across another. We were just excited to have the luxury of wandering around Moscow just after midnight on New Year's Day!

There were crowds everywhere, light displays, live music. And then snow.

It started to fall heavily less than ten minutes after midnight. If we'd made it on to the metro right away we'd have missed it!

A lot hasn't gone to plan on this trip to Russia. But, as I open my mouth and allow snow crystals to melt on my tongue, I know that this night made it all worthwhile.