Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic’

Preview – Groundhog Day – Old Vic

July 30, 2016

It is not everyday that one of my favorite movies of all times gets turned into a real, live action, West End big budget musical with talent of the likes of Tim Minchin doing the music and lyrics. I mean wow. What an event! I was ready to buy tickets to it from the moment I saw it was happening (January?) but only actually got them in May for the soonest possible date I could go, which was in July. Preview, shmeview, GIVE ME THE GOODS.

I’m really sorry that I didn’t keep track of all of the songs so you musical theater buffs out there could get a nice whiff of fresh musical (AAAH the smell of fresh musical in the morning), but I was very busy paying attention to the show and not taking copious notes. Anti-preview review kill joys would just complain anyway. HEY, IF YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE, STOP READING, I DON’T WANT YOU TO READ THIS AND THEN COMPLAIN ABOUT IT. IT’S A REVIEW OF A PREVIEW. NOBODY IS FORCING YOU TO READ THIS SO JUST GO AWAY IF YOU ARE GOING TO COMPLAIN.

The show is set up on a revolve – pretty darned appropriate given that it’s all taking place on one day – and the central location for a lot of it is the tiny room our male lead Phil “just like the groundhog!” (Andy Karl) wakes up in morning after morning to relieve a particularly unremarkable day in his life, when he discovers he has been snowed in and is stuck in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania. Why is he experiencing this one day over and over again? We’ll never know, but watching the madness that ensues as a day’s trivia replays over and over again is somewhat hypnotizing. Phil, of course, is at first mystified, then mad, then bored, then suicidal … then, at last, accepting. He gets the opportunity to sing all sorts of crazy songs as he tries to break the day in new and different ways. Different characters briefly come into the spotlight, but the focus comes to be on the producer he’s working with … Rita (Carlyss Peer). He is trying to sleep with her, but, frankly, he’s such a sleaze you don’t want to see him succeed. But slowly … he manages to evolve. And finally, against all odds, you begin to hope that somehow, he’ll win her over … and break out of the loop.

The night I went, there were still some sound quality issues being worked through, and it was running a bit long, but it felt very close to what it wanted to be (and just a few nights away from formal opening). I found myself wishing it had a lot more dancing in it, because, well, it’s a musical, and, well, why not? The big tap dance number done while the groundhog pounds away on the drums certainly went over well and the show has room for even more extravagant over the top moves – reality is no barrier in the context of this story. But, well, I may not speak for everyone. The audience certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, and the on-stage chemistry between the two leads was quite compelling. I’d say it’s a darn good evening and will, no doubt, quickly be transferring to somewhere else, so best get those affordable Old Vic seats while you still can.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on July 23, 2016. It’s booking through September 17th. There are a LOT of sex jokes, so don’t bring under 14s is my advice.)

Mini-review – The Hairy Ape – Old Vic Theater

November 10, 2015

Over the last few years, I’ve really warmed up to the work of Eugene O’Neill. There have been hits and misses, but the combined impact of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness can hardly be put into words. His ability to create characters that burn into your memory as icons of pure being … it’s like they walked from the world of Plato’s Ideals into our own, casting their shadows across the entire planet of twentieth century theater.

And then, well, he’s also got what I’d consider lesser works: bombastic, lecturing, obsessed with structure and politics over character and plot. Even knowing this, I queued up for The Old Vic’s production of The Hairy Ape, which seemed, by all indicators, early enough in his career to be shackled with cement-like boots of drivel (and was promoted as being from his socialist era – how dull!). But at 90 minutes and with Bertie Carvel, well, I asked myself, how bad could it be?

This, obviously, was a question asked by many others, as I was able to get half priced second row seats on the day and much of the upper reaches of the theater was echoingly empty. The script seemed both stylized and preachy – a bit much of a combo – and the characters seemed to be drawn from a random sack of easy stereotypes (the brutal laborer – Bertie Carvel, the spoiled heiress – Rosie Sheehy, the cowardly socialist, the calculating … frankly, the only character that showed any freedom was the ape in the zoo). As Rosie Sheehy pronounced her character’s easy, snobby assessments of the struggling workers she mocked – and as these characters showed themselves to be brutal, lazy, and ignorant – I felt that O’Neill himself was struggling to make a play that was not cartoonish. He seemed to have neither sympathy for nor insight into any of the people he was attempting to create on stage, and the effect was coming off rather like a silent movie, with Snidely Whiplash expected any moment.

And yet … somehow the actor’s heightened performances started working with the overblown dialogue, and, combined with the exaggeration of the set (so much acid yellow!) and movement, we started moving into a different realm … where the unreality became surreality, and Yank’s journey from the pits of the ship to the heights of New York society started to cohere. It was meant to be extreme, it was meant to be over the top, and, well, even though the dialogue was crap if you were going for naturalism, the second you made it into Expressionism it started to work.

And this was a ride I was willing to go along for. I cast aside my need for believable characters and set down to watch a morality tale set in 1920s New York – and tremendously enjoyed myself. I loved the over the top set pieces, I loved the ridiculousness, I bought into Carvel’s exaggerations of his horribly over the top man of muscles. And then, suddenly, it was over – much in the way you might have predicted it ending from about ten minutes in – and I found, even though this play would have been intolerable on paper, somehow Richard Jones had made the damn thing work on stage. Good on you, I say, and don’t miss it – the chances you’ll ever see such an enjoyable production of this show at any point in the rest of your life is slim.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Mini-review – High Society – Old Vic

August 24, 2015

Oops. Looks like I let this one slip. I saw High Society the night before I started my new job and it turns out one of the things I can’t do is write reviews while I’m at work. So: the music was brilliant, there was some nice dancing, and I went home cheerful and very interested in seeing Philadelphia Story. As for the production itself, I’m glad I was able to get a half priced ticket, as it didn’t blow me away – still, it was a good way to celebrate financial solvency, if a bit unmemorable.

Mini-review – Tree – Daniel Kitson at the Old Vic

January 23, 2015

After three weeks without theater and a week with a truly dispiriting run of shows, I felt actively nervous heading into Tree at the Old Vic. A month ago it had sounded perfect, a ninety minute, comic two hander: but I’d lost my sense of purpose. Yeah, Stewart Pringle said the star was a very funny guy, but I didn’t know him from Adam. And then there’s that whole problem I have with British comedy. Half of the time, I just don’t get it, and most of the rest of the time I don’t understand why people are laughing at something that may be odd but certainly isn’t funny. But still, ninety minutes and nineteen pounds, and a Waterloo location to ensure I got home before eleven: I’d just have to push through.

Walking into the theater, I was faced with (spoiler alert!) a three story tree in the middle of the auditorium. Okay, well, it did SAY it was called Tree, I just wasn’t expecting a tree to figure so grandly in things. The auditorium was configured in a much more up-sweeping fashion than usual, with people sat 360 degrees around the small area of the set, even in the boxes. And then a bearded man scaled the tree.

And then, within a few minutes of the start of the play, we were told that he had been up this tree for eight years. OH NOES. I figure there was now two ways for things to go: either some horrible, cloying, environmentalist fable, or a completely nauseating, modern-day existentialist pile of crap. The man up the tree and the man at the base of the tree – a middle-aged suit in a suit killing time before a picnic – strung out the inevitable revelation of “the point of it all” by getting on with some getting to know each other conversation (in which tree man delicately avoids saying just why he’s up the tree), delaying my inevitable disappointment at the heavy handedness of it all by telling little stories about their lives: Suit used to try to save the world from dog poop; Tree has food delivered once a week; Suit’s in love with a woman who makes funny faces when she smiles; Tree watches movies with a widow via binoculars; Suit once spilled a huge bottle of American cream soda over himself; Tree has come up with a unique solution to the toilet question. In some ways, like Waiting for Godot, this story telling is really what the play is about, and with two such personable protagonists, it’s actually really fun to listen to them tell each other stories, occasionally offend each other, and generally act like English blokes.

And then, at last, the moment came, when the horrible revelation happened that clarified for once and for all if this was an environmental fable or some aggravating absurdist/existentialist piece of tripe. But lo! Kitson and Key swung off in another direction just when the whole thing seemed hopeless. And, in just a few more minutes, it was all over, and I realized I’d just had a really good evening. A few days later I found out the play had been extended, and to that I say good: you could hardly ask for a more perfect comic gem of a show than this one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, January 19th, 2015. It continues until February 22nd.)

Mini-review – Kiss Me Kate – Old Vic (transfer from Chichester)

December 14, 2012

There’s nothing like the feeling of going to see a musical by one of the best composers EVER for the VERY FIRST TIME and knowing NOTHING about it but excitedly anticipating how very WONDERFUL it will be! All of those instant classic songs waiting to become earworms! Those characters you can’t forget! The dancing! The magic!

And then, I’m afraid, there was my trip to Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic. I admit, my primary reason for going was actually seeing Clive Rowe – my number one theatrical pal was in town and we were both hoping to catch Clive on stage (since he was taking a break from dame-ing at the Hackney Empire). Oddly, my friend and I have exactly opposite tastes when it comes to Cole Porter, as I love him, while Jonathan … well, he likes Rent.

But … but … I walked out of this show scratching my head. What was really so great about the songs at all? Now, both “Too Hot” and its associated dance number were fabulous, and “Always True to You in My Fashion” was classic bad girl material, but … I love Porter for his fantastically witty lyrics and rhyme schemes, which seemed generally NOT PRESENT. Did he just run out of creative juice between 1934 and 1948? Who in the world pronounces “Bianca” the way he suggests?

And, I hate to say it, but … the show dragged. I got bored. I’d be briefly engaged again, and there’d be some kind of uninspiring dialogue. Then FOOF there’d be some great stagecraft (I loved the sets and the costumes ALERT DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE) but AGH OH NO it’s Holly Dale Spencer overacting Lois again MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP!

Now, Hannah Waddington was lovely and had a great voice (and looked fantastic) and there was some (but not enough) chemistry with her and Alex Bourne but Clive was woefully underused, and it’s wrong, wrong I tell you, to see a musical of this position in the canon and walk out thinking, “I’m so glad I only paid £16 to see that.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 10th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – Noises Off – Novello Theater

June 26, 2012

I can’t tell you how much it pleases me after going to one or two duds to then finally hit a show that’s really in its groove. I’ve read nothing but positives for Noises Off all the way back to before it transferred from the Old Vic, so I was hoping for a good time (and chose it specifically because I needed a pick-me-up). Still, I had a bit of dread heading into a show that was closing two months earlier than expected: would it have that leaden feeling so many shows under the hangman’s axe have?

Walking into a lobby full of perky people, there was nary a whiff of failure in the air (a bit surprising considering how many shows I’ve seen there that have gone into the turkey annals despite my enthusiasm for them). Folks were cheerful, upbeat, and generally acting like they were expecting to have a good evening – which made me wonder why the show was closing early. But given that the theater has three different balconies and that two of them were closed, I can see where the producers had decided it was time to call last round – a fact which in no way had dampened the enthusiasm of a Monday night crowd. In the auditorium, people were chattering in an animated fashion, explaining what to look forward to and expressing enthusiasm for the evening ahead. Clutching my dreadfully expensive ticket (£35 – ouch!), I did my “man in seat prayer” and hoped they were right.

What I knew going in advance was this was a farce about actors in a farce, and that some scenes are set backstage, while others are set on stage (I had heard back, back, front, but it was actually front, back, front). I didn’t realize that one of the scenes is actually a final rehearsal, which meant that the three scenes were all quite differently textured and paced (though the first act was a bit long). I also didn’t realize that the comedy of people performing a farce was going to be part of the hilarity of this play. Yeah, sure, doors and boobies hah ha; but when you turn it into the wrong doors backstage, insanely jealous actors and the wrong girl’s boobies (panties, actually), it just all becomes much more hilarious. You’ll probably not be laughing about sardines by act three, and if you’re me you’ll find the bit with the cactus a little hard to support mentally, but the scene where a man is hopping upstairs in a race to make his cue because his shoelaces are tied together just had me busting out laughing.

And, mostly, after the first act act was over, the whole show was a bucket of fun. The energy onstage never dropped; the feeling of commitment to the script was 100%; and the audience was utterly ready for every moment. Was this a show about to close? From row G, I wasn’t seeing it. I was only feeling sorry because I knew how close to the end it all was; like about a third of the people there, I would absolutely go see this again. You’ve got a few days still and there are good seats going cheap (especially if you get them in the gods as you’re pretty much assured an upgrade unless you pick Friday or Saturday night); try to catch it while you can.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, June 25th, 2012. The last show will be Saturday, July 30th, 2012.)

Best (Top Ten +) cheap restaurants in London’s West End Theatre-land

March 2, 2009

Going to the theater twice a week can really leave a hole in your budget, even if, like me, you dial down your costs by sticking to nose-bleed seats and £10 shows at the National. Add to this the cost of meals out, and WHOOSH! There goes your budget!

However, I make penny pinching into a sport, and keeping down food costs is a big deal to me. After four years of London theater watching, I’ve got several restaurants* I make regular visits to on show nights. This is my overview of the best cheap eats to be found in London’s theater-land, from Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Shaftesbury Avenue, to the South Bank, and all the way out to Islington, Hammersmith, and Dalston – and a real and genuine summary of the places I go to have a pre-show dinner over and over again.

All times included are walking distances, based on a brisk Londoner-style walk from the front door of the restaurant to the front door of the theater. Allow additional time if you haven’t picked up your tickets, need to go up three flights of stairs to get to your seats, and of COURSE if you are having a hard time getting the waiter to give you your bill!

Theater Neighborhoods & Best Cheap Restaurants (click neighborhood for details)
Covent Garden (Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Noel Coward Theatre etc): Battersea Pie Station, Pepe Italian Street Food, Lupita, Chando’s Opera Room (drinks only), Gelatorino (dessert)
Leicester Square/Shaftesbury Avenue (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome, Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, Queen’s, etc. – I consider this the “West End” proper, more theatres than I can type): choose from nearby options, or Taro, the Baozi Inn or Flatiron (see below).
South “West End” (Theatre Royal Haymarket, Criterion, Comedy Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre): Assaggetti (corporate but quick and reasonably priced); Flatiron Steak House (DEELISH but must be there at 6).
North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion, Shaftesbury, Soho Theatre, Palladium): Enrique Tomas ham emporium, Thai Cottage, Pitt Cue Co, Inamo, Icco Pizza
Southbank and Waterloo, a.k.a. the Deep South “West End” (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic, Southwark Playhouse): Culture Grub, Waterloo or Southbank Wahaca, Mar Y Tierra
Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): La Bottega
Islington i.e. the slightly east West End (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): Masala Zone, Oregano Pizzeria, Banana Tree Canteen, Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Hammersmith, a.k.a. the Way-out West End (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor
The Barbican, a.k.a. the slightly East West End (Barbican Theater, Guildhall Music School, Silk Street Theatre): Amico Bio (at Barbican station), Grab Thai food (near Old Street station)
Hackney and Dalston a.k.a. the Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): 19 Numara Bos Cirrik
Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland)
Far-northern West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful
Far-southern East End (aka Greenwich) (Greenwich Theatre): Goddards at Greenwich
Far-southern off West End (Landor): Alba Pizzeria

Covent Garden (east West End, including the Noel Coward, Duke of Yorks, Royal Opera House and London Coliseum – 5 minutes, Theatre Royal Drury Lane – 8 minutes, Aldwych and Novello – 10 minutes): new to the fold and close to my heart is Pepe Italian street food, across the street from the Noel Coward and in spitting distance of the London Coliseum (and the Duke of York’s). It’s got some of the best pizza in London, and while £4 a slice seems steep, it’s so damned good (and a meal with a side salad, about £2.50) that I don’t care. In addition they have these crazy sandwiches called piadina (£5.50 ish) made with an ultra puffy, tortilla like bread that just becomes heaven with melted mozzarella inside. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Bonus: everything served in 2-5 minutes – if you arrive at Leicester Square Tube at 7 for a 7:30 show, you’re safe.

Your best option if you want to eat right in Covent Garden is the Battersea Pie Station, in the basement of Covent Garden. Why? Imagine this: you have about 15 minutes to eat before you go to your show (say, for example, Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 10 minute walk) but don’t want a cold sandwich. If there’s no line, you can order a small pie and mash (with gravy) for 5.25 and be eating a nice hot meal in 5 minutes. I kid you not. They have veggie as well as meat options, and while I don’t want pie all the time, if you’re looking for a pleasant hot meal you just can’t beat this place for price and speed.

A favorite from 2011 is Mexican food hole-in-the-wall Lupita (13 Villiers Street, WC2N 6ND, Villiers Street exit from Charing Cross Station, London Coliseum, Noel Coward and Duke of York Theatres – 8 minutes, ROH – 12 minutes), which has totally eclipsed overpopular and loud Wahaca despite the lack of mole (a kind of Mexican curry sauce). Lupita is real Mexican style and not TexMex, with tiny flat tacos, fresh guacamole, burritos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). One burrito or two of the small plates (tacos, tostadas, quesadillas – please eat with your hands and don’t embarrass yourself), and for about £10 you are out the door. Personal favorites: queso fundido with chorizo (God’s gift to my tummy) and quesadilla with squash blossoms (it’s just super tasty and weird, I love it!). Arrive at 6 and your dinner is secure, and you’ll even have time for a margarita – but only one: any more is NOT a good plan when you’ve got a night of opera ahead of you.

A former favorites, though still good if you haven’t eaten there weekly for a few years, is the Bedford Street Paul. Though this is a chain, the lovely French meals available in this sit-down location are well priced and tasty, the atmosphere pleasant, and service is generally fast. The bread is the best I have found in London and makes the meal extra-yummy. A friend of mine usually gets the soup of the day and then splurges on a dessert, which isn’t a bad plan. They suffer from long lines around 6:30, but even at 6:45 you may be able to eat, get out at 7:20, and make your show at the ROH provided you jog across the market and bullet your way up the stairs at the Opera House. God knows I’ve done it many times!

While I won’t recommend pubs for dinner, Chando’s Opera Room (29 St. Martins Lane, WC2N 4ER) is my preferred location for a cheap pint in the neighborhood. Since they’re a Sam Smith pub, they have the delicious Sam Smith cider on tap. If you’re going for “bringing your own,” this is a great place to have a drink to wash it down with – or wait for people before you to go a show together. (Note: be sure to go upstairs as this is where the action is. It’s a gorgeous pub with lots of windows. I love it!)

Finally, if you just want a fast, filling delicious scoop of ice cream, Gelatorino opened in May 2011 at 2 Russell Street (WC2B 5JD) between the Royal Opera House and the Theater Royal Drury Lane, and I can recommend it as an ideal cool down and cream up – speaking as a person who’s made it a life goal to find the best gelato anywhere.

Leicester Square (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome – 3 minutes; Shaftesbury Avenue – 5 minutes): this area is a diner’s wasteland. Pick one of my options nearby and add walking time, or roll the dice and go for Chinese. And I’ve finally found one I like: the Baozi Inn, on the little alley behind Shaftesbury. Cash only, £8 minimum, fantastic, traditional Chinese food. For those of you at the Palace Theater, Taro (10 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TF), a Japanese food restaurant, has cheapie prices and quickie service and a tasty, unpretentious menu. Don’t kill your wallet with sushi, get a chicken teriyaki don for £5.90. At these prices I can promise you’ll be back later.

South “West End” (Haymarket Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre – 3 minutes; Comedy Theatre – 5 minutes; Criterion Theatre – 8 minutes): my former favorite Galileo’s Locanda Toscana has been replaced by a corporate Italian joint, Assagetti, at the same address, 71 Haymarket (SW1Y 4RW). I hate the stools and the fake charm but they’ve got the speed thing down and you can get three small dishes for £11.25 and still make it to the Haymarket – or over to Shaftesbury Avenue – with time to spare. (And if you were looking for a place where you could get fifty or so people in, their basement space is huge.) However, I’m too picky about my Italian to come here again.

On the other hand if you’re feeling brave and you’re willing to plunge into the heart of Soho, walk straight up Sherwood street, past the Picadilly Theater and the back side of Whole Foods, along Golden Square until you get to Beak Street (go left!), home of the brilliant Flat Iron Steak House, my cheap eats find for 2014. £10 for a steak with a side salad and some popcorn to nibble on I KID YOU NOT (other sides £3-£4ish). Trick is you need to be there at 6 sharp (or earlier) if there’s any chance of you getting a seat as they don’t take reservations and fill up fast. But it’s SO WORTH IT as the steak is always EXCELLENT. And they usually have some other kind of special like a burger or a different cut of steak. Once you’re sat down, you can order, eat and leave in about 30 minutes, which is a kind of a dream for me but also as a theater goer gives you time to get to your show. So if you’re seeing anything on Shaftesbury or near Haymarket, just do it because this restaurant ROCKS. Book of Mormon AND STEAK! Dirty Dancing AND STEAK! Les Miserables AND STEAK! I mean, hey, if you’re working £15 tickets, why not make it £25 and say AND I HAD STEAK!

North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion and Shaftesbury): I will often come eat here and then make the trek further south, leaving the restaurant at 7:10 or so depending on distance. Best options are:
Enrique Tomas, a “jamon iberico” ham emporium selling fantastic cheap sarnies for about £3.50 a shot if you go for the cheap stuff. It’s not entirely a meal, but OMG ham it’s just like being in Spain. Perfectly situated for the Soho Theater and if you want a big meal you can grab one after your show, or get a cupcake from Hummingbird Bakery (across the street) or Gails (next door).
Thai Cottage, fondly known as “Five Alarm Thai” (34 D’arblay St, London, W1F 8EX) – With lunches and pre-theater dinners for around £7, and the food all made in the kitchen by granny, this one gets visits from me any time I’m near Soho Square/Tottenham Court Road.

Not exactly cheap but absolutely awesome is the Pitt Cue Co, very conveniently located near the London Palladium (1 Newburgh St, W1F 7RG near to Oxford Circus). Their barbeque is not just good, it’s world class, and I’ve had barbeque all over Kansas, Texas, and Mississippi, not to mention nearly every other state in the US I’ve been to. However, their 6 PM opening time may not give you enough time to make a 7:30 show, so perhaps you should consider it for a matinee on a Saturday, or just a dreamy night of barbeque. MMM mmm MMM!

Inamo (134 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZR) – this amusing restaurant can be very competitive to get a seat at, but with a £10.00 pre-theater menu that neither my husband nor I could finish (baby back ribs, kakiage, homemade pickles, rice and edamame), it’s utterly worth the effort. To top it off, the interior is SO cute and the “touch your table to place your order” gimmick is fun and seems to result in getting your food much faster than it would at any normal joint. No need for faffing – just tap the table and BOOM people come brink you food. You can even watch them making it on a video cam that projects in front of you!

Speaking of Thai, AVOID AT ALL COSTS the “all you can eat Vegan Thai food” joints springing up all over London like poop in a park on a sunny day. I’ve been to Tai Buffet and Tai Veg and the quality was EXCEEDINGLY poor. Frankly I would have rather not had all you can eat and just had one thing I WANTED to eat besides the dried seaweed.

Icco Pizza (46 Goodge Street, W1T 4LU) – add an extra 5 minutes for any destination but with pizzas between £4 and £5 this may be worth the hike for you.

Southbank and Waterloo (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic): while the National Theatre can actually feed you for about £5 at their downstairs cafe, clever theater goers will instead head to Culture Grub, halfway betweeen the Young and Old Vic (84 The Cut London SE1 8LW). Their ultra-discount Chinese plates are filling and served in about three minutes – a real gift if you were held up at work but still want more than a packet of crisps before the interval. Or you might want to go for some speedy Mexican at Wahaca’s Waterloo location (101 Waterloo Road SE1 8UL), cunningly located directly across the street from Waterloo’s big tube entrance. They also have a location right on the Southbank, though this location has shorter lines and is closer to the Vics. But if you’ve made it to Southwark Playhouse, it’s impossible for you to not go to Mar I Tierra, the most perfect tapas place I could ever dream of finding. It’s the kind of place that makes you pick your theater based on your food. You can rack up a big bill if you want but you can also get a bowl of gazpacho, some olives, and a cheese plate for around £10, though if you can resist a jug of sangria you’re made of stronger stuff than me. There’s a menu of daily specials and OH the garden. What a joy!

Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): Now that the Royal Court is the new Donmar (and just don’t they have great deals on tickets for their shows!), it’s important for the frugal theater-goer to have a nearby dining option. I’m delighted with the La Bottega (65 Lower Sloane Street, SW1W 8HD, 5 minutes to Royal Court, 10 minutes to Cadogan Hall), which, even though it closes at 8PM, is still open at good hours for pre-show diners. Sadly, their hours are much shorter on weekends (6 PM close Saturdays, 5 PM Sundays), but them’s the breaks.

Slightly east West End, aka Islington (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): the obvious cheap choice for Sadler’s Wells attendees is the Garden Court Cafe, located at the Lilian Baylis entrance to the theater. The menu is limited but with hot mains around 7 quid and sandwiches for four, this is the best and closest option – and especially convenient for weekend matinees. Bonus: free wifi!

Masala Zone (80 Upper Street, N1 0NU, 8 minutes to Almeida, 15 to Sadler’s Wells) has a pre-theatre dinner combo for under £10. Oregano Pizzeria (St. Alban’s Place, N1 0NX, right around the corner from Masala Zone so same distances) makes real, Italian style pizza in a proper oven and has tasty, affordable pastas, though beef and seafood hits the over £10 mark. I’d also recommend it for a sit down and relax kind of meal if you don’t have theatre tickets hanging over your head. Finally, Banana Tree Canteen (412 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 8 minutes to Sadlers, Wells, 15-20 to the Almeida) serves up nice cheap plates and bowls of Thai and Malaysian food and has an early-bird dinner deal for about £8, starter and main. They are cheap and good enough to warrant a visit to on a normal basis, since their available any time “combo plate” is only £8.95 and includes one of many mains, rice, and two sides so is a complete screaming deal. Note that it’s best if you aren’t too fussed about having really authentic Oriental food (it’s still miles above Wagamama and their Laksa rocks the house) and don’t mind the occasionally lame service.
Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi bar
(61 Upper Street). I made it here during the Flamenco festival and wound up going three times in two weeks – the truly authentic Japanese food (almost all under £10, sushi and non-fish food both available) really worked for me. Shame they don’t have beef teriyaki but vegetarian options are available – but note they close between 3 and 6PM.
Way-out West End, aka Hammersmith (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor (177 King Street, W6 9JT). I highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo – it’s an eight minute walk to the Lyric but SUCH a better option pricewise than Chula!

Barbican and Old Street (Barbican, Silk Street Theater, etc.): If you want some really good Italian food before you go to a show at the Barbican and don’t want to break your budget, Amico Bio (44 Cloth Fair London EC1A 7JQ ) has incredibly tasty food and a price point that will make your eyes glitter. At about £7 for an entree, it’s a perfect place to show up at for an antipasto and a main and still be able to leave without having even spent a tenner. They are literally five minutes walk from the tube (but print a map out at this neighborhood is very medieval) but it will take you 15 very brisk minutes to get back on the highwalk and in the Barbican theater so leave time. HIGHLY recommended especially given how overpriced and pants the Barbican’s house restaurants are.

If you’re really going for cheap, you might also try Grab Thai food (about 5 steps south of Old Street station at 5 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4AQ), where you can get a small pot of curry and rice for under £5, but they close at 7PM on weekdays so you need to move fast. Still, if it’s sunny you can get it to go and eat it at the waterpark in the middle of the Barbican, which would be just VERY nice.

Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): two different neighborhoods, one restaurant with locations in both: 19 Numara Bos Cirrik (Dalston branch at 34 Stoke Newington Road, Dalston, N16 7XJ, Hackney at 1-3 Amhurst Road, E8 1LL). Free starters, piles of food for cheap, occasional flying charcoal bits turning your table into a barbeque grill, YUM! In fact, this restaurant is so good, it’s made me start going to the Arcola more.

Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland). The food here is really good (it’s mostly reproduced here) and it’s within about six steps of Wilton’s, so if you find yourself in this tremendously underserved area and hungry, give it a try. It’s not worth a separate trip but it’s definitely tasty and can hold its head up high no matter where the location.

Far North West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful. About five doors up from the Tricycle, this restaurant is a tightwad’s dream come true. Most of the entrees were around 5 quid, the starters were about 2, and I was able to get a glass of decent wine for 2.50 – our total for two (with one glass of wine) was 16 quid. And the food was yummy and attractively presented. After the horrible experience I had at the African restaurant down the street, this will be my new home in Kilburn henceforth, possibly encouraging me to brave the great Northern unknown more frequently.

Greenwich (Greenwich Theater): on a corner of the Greenwich Market is the wonderful “Goddards at Greenwich,” a traditional pie and mash shop that’s been running since 1890. Like most traditional pie and mash places, you can feed yourself for under £5 and tea is less than a quid. It’s about ten minutes from the rail station but only five minutes from the theater. Highly recommended if you’re on the way to the annual panto!

Clapham North (Landor Pub Theater): NOVEMBER 2014 update: either remodeling or closed, will let you know! Directly across from the quieter street flanking the Clapham North tube station, Alba pizzeria is THE place to go for a quick and decent meal before a show at the Landor. On Mondays and Tuesdays (I think) they do a “pizza and a glass of wine” deal for 10 quid, but this isn’t the draw: it’s the fact that their pizza is good, really good. I mean, who cares about the deal? Truth is that their wine is cheaper than the Landor anyway and there’s a much better selection, so just eat here before the show and have a glass of wine to boot. The house at the Landor doesn’t open until ten minutes before curtain anyway so no reason to rush.

*Sure, you can always pack a meal, buy bread and cheese at the store, get a quick (overpriced) sandwich at Pret, find a pasty (this is actually not the worst thing to do if you want to stick under £4, and there is a Cornish Pasty shop cunningly located in Covent Garden), or go to some chain pizza joint. But I want a good meal, something I actually enjoy.

Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) – The Old Vic (and soon The Circle in the Square Theater, NYC)

September 18, 2008

This show is being transferred to the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. Consider yourself warned!

Disclaimer: somehow, several years ago, I inadvertently watched Living Together (The Norman Conquests) on video back in Seattle. Normally I don’t watch plays on video tape, but I was broke (as I got this from the library it was free) and it was English and I figured it would be funny.

Well, it wasn’t. An utterly dull lead character, a rather silly sex farce plot … I turned it off midway and got to work on something more exciting (doubtlessly sleep, or possibly washing the dishes). I couldn’t figure out how it had just turned out to be an utter and complete dud, like a can of soda pop with no fizz, or chips that had gone stale in the bag. So the chance of any real surprises for this show were low. And yet … years later, its existence had slipped my memory. Title? Playwright? Nada. Zip. It was as if it had never happened.

And so, happily lacking a key bit of information about a certain playwright, I chose, back in December, to see “Absurd Person Singular,” which I considered at the time to be my first play by Alan Ayckbourn. In an unsurprisingly similar vein to the video I had once watched, my reaction was that … it was just so dated. I found it a real struggle to get through and really not particularly funny. The only consolation was that I went with the West End Whingers, a pair of guys I’d been dying to hang out with, as they seemed to be pretty sharp theater goers and also completely capable of knowing when to cut and run rather than insisting on punishing their theater companions while at a dog.

So another ten months or so rolls by, and yet I’ve still not made the connection about the video I saw years back and the lame play I saw in November. I was unable to properly weigh the value of watching Alan Ayckbourn versus the pleasure of a night out with the Whingers. So what did I do? When invited, I said yes, thinking perhaps Absurd Person Singular was a one-off dud. I mean, hey, this guy’s written practically hundreds of plays – everyone gets it wrong now and then, right?

The correct thing, apparently, would have been to have trusted my instincts about Ayckbourn being the Neil Simon of English theater and somehow to have REMEMBERED the horrible video I watched years ago. And yet … memory like a sieve, I forgot and I went. And if maybe the description on the Old Vic’s website rang a little bell, I just figured, eh, with a professional cast, this will be so much better, right?

Well, I’d say the only thing I got right about this evening was that it’s nice to hang out with savvy theater folk. I loved the lovely reconfiguration of the Old Vic into an “in the round” theater, until I figured out my seats were basically level with the head of the person in front of me; while I’m okay with not being able to see everyone’s faces in this configuration, I’m not okay with not being able to see them because I have someone else’s head in my face. But it was cool to see the rows of seats, like bleachers at the circus, lining the space behind where the stage normally is. I think it made the Old Vic a lot more fun.

Otherwise, well, the play is a dog. There’s just no getting around it. Who cares about Norman? (Stephen Mangan, nothing personal, mate, you did your best.) He’s not an interesting character and it’s impossible to believe anyone would want to sleep with him. Yeah, he does do some fairly comic lying and BSing, but he doesn’t seem to have any motivations behind his words or even behind his existence and didn’t seem the least bit believable. In fact, he was every bit as much of a dullard, a fizzless soda, a non-crispy chip, as he was in the horrid video. If only he’d killed himself like he’d been threatening to in the first act the whole thing would have been so much better!

Sadly, many of the doubtlessly undertheatered audience were laughing at the thin humor in this show. Now I’ll admit, the cast was good. In fact, I loved Amanda Root as Sarah, the uptight wife of Reg (Paul Ritter). She was completely inhabiting her anally retentive character, and when she finally flipped out at Annie (Jessica Hynes), I was lapping it up. But what was the point of this show? I was far more interested in the home made games that Reg was describing than anything else going on stage, though I got a little giggle when it became clear that Norman had (insert spoiler here). That said … what is the logic of the mountaineering game? It has sherpas, but what else does it have? Does everyone climb the mountain at the same time? Are there funny costumes to wear like for the cops and robbers games Reg had everyone playing during the first act? How do you win?

Now, the gimmick of these three plays (for there are two others) is that they all show different takes on the same weekend (description here). I wish that was an interesting enough reason to see them, but I think there’s a reason these plays haven’t been mounted for 34 years. In short: they are dated and they stink. Please save yourself the trouble and stay at home. Perhaps you too have dishes to wash or even some sleep to catch up on – better to do so in your house than in the deliciously reconfigured confines (and I emphasize “confine”) of the Old Vic.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008. I have little hope that further performances will improve the script, so consider yourself warned. The Whingers’ take on Norman is also online.)

September Theatre preview

August 27, 2008

This is the most shocking of weeks – I have no theater trips planned at all! That, however, is how the cookie crumbles when out of town trips come along (and no, I didn’t do Edinburgh this year). I do have plenty of shows planned for September, though … well, not nearly enough as I have an out of town guest staying for a week (with no interest in theater, as near as I can tell), but I will do my best with the time remaining.

These are the shows I’m planning to see (so far) for September:
3 September (Wednesday): Matthew Bourne’s Portrait of Dorian Grey – Sadler’s Wells
12 September (Friday): Wayne Macgregor’s Ignite festival at Covent Garden (this is over three days so I’ll just go when I can manage).
15 September (Monday): The Pinter double header at the National, Landscape and A Slight Ache. The Whingers didn’t care for Ache but that’s no surprise – they’re not major Pinter fans. Me, I love Pinter, and I like seeing two short plays back to back, so off I go.
16 September Tuesday: one of the Norman Conquest plays at the Old Vic. I’m not super enthused about this as I detested the last play I saw by Alan Ayckbourn (Absurd Person Singular, such a dud!), but it was an invitation from the Whingers so I said yes anyway.
17 September Wednesday: Zorro. This initially gave me The Phear, but the Whingers said it was great, so I’m going. (Actually it’s a bit of a surprise that they said it was great, since they’re far less enthusiastic than the average punter, but since they haven’t let me down yet with their recommendations I’m going to give this thing a shot.)
19 September Thursday: Small Craft at the Arcola. I suspect this is just a ploy for me to go out and get more good Turkish food in Dalston, but, whatever, the people at the theater don’t care why I come as long as I pay for my ticket (and I do like Tennessee Williams).
23 September Monday: Kamishibai theater at the Barbican. I like Japanese theater (this sounds like their version of Punch and Judy) and culture so I wouldn’t want to miss this.
25 September Wednesday: supposedly a trip to the ROH to see Callisto, if I can find tickets I can afford.
30 September Tuesday: Stevie Wonder at the O2. It’s a birthday present for my husband (and likely the most expensive night out we’ll have all year, which is why I’m bothering to mention it).

Finally: October 1st is Merce Cunningham at the Barbican, and though it’s not actually in September, I’m starting October with another long bout of being out of the country, so I thought I’d include it in this list. The last person I took with me to see Merce was apparently damaged by the experience (“Did you know it was going to be like that?”) so I’m being more particular and sticking to going with my husband, who, like me, thinks that Merce is one of the true grand masters of modern dance – a living treasure of American culture – and we are excited that we can continue to watch his already excellent art evolving in real time.

Holy shit, and I just found out that Autumn: Osage County, the single play I’ve been most dying to see for the last year, is coming to the National in November! Heads will roll but I WILL see that show!

Review – Pygmalion – Old Vic Theater

August 7, 2008

What a pleasure it is to watch theater that is the very embodiment of what people expect to see in London, the English language theater capitol of the world. Witty, beautifully staged, excellently acted – it was fairly well perfect. Of course, it started with an excellent script – Shaw is a good writer – but Pygmalion is a masterpiece, right up there with Hamlet. It appears it was cut a bit for length, but I didn’t mind it much (except for a reference to a black eye later in the show that didn’t seem to make sense) – each scene was a powerhouse of action, funny dialogue, and character development. The set (Simon Higlett) was rather heavily designed, but seemed well suited to a very realistic production; the costumes (Christopher Woods) were gorgeous 1910ish fashion plates (when appropriate), and the choice to put Eliza consistently in white a wonderful decision – the cut of her tea party dress had me drooling.

The actors were all basically spot on and I can’t really say too much about any one of them (in part given that the show is ending this Saturday) that doesn’t apply to them all due to their uniform excellence. They completely inhabited their characters and each one of them, from the rather hateful Henry Higgins (Tim Pigott-Smith) to his mother (Barbara Jefford) to his housekeeper (Una Stubbs) just kept me fully engaged at all time. And Michelle Dockery, well, this Eliza she had me laughing and crying at different times during the show and had irresistable stage presence to boot. Nice job all!

The previous evening’s show had left me with a bit of Post Turkey Stress Disorder, but Pygmalion washed it all away. It closes soon, but do try to catch it if you can – a better show can hardly be imagined. Me, I want to get a copy of the script and read it all to catch the few lines I missed due to them being laughed over by the audience. What a great night!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August sixth.)