Monday, 22 May 2017

A new daily ritual: 30mins of reading

Growing up, I was always a bookworm.

I loved reading and I was a fast reader, so I would devour book after book.

I'd build dens with my sister and sit in there to read book after book after book.

English literature was always my 'thing' academically, and that's what I continued on to study at university.


After leaving university almost four years ago, my reading levels definitely decreased.

Part of the reason was I just needed a break. I had been reading such huge quantities and reading things TO discuss, write about and be examined on.

At the same time, my lifestyle wasn't in a very good place overall.

My anxiety had kicked in for the first time and my overall way of living and mindset were extremely unhealthy.

Add in working full time and the excuses of never having enough time to read, and the number of books I was getting through decreased dramatically.


I started reading properly again a couple of years ago, when I moved to London, as my tube commute was the perfect little block of time to get stuck into a book.

The problem with that was that I only read a very particular kind of book on the tube. Because I hated the tube so much, I needed easy, 'trashy' novels that  could quickly get swept away in and enabled me to block out the world around me. My reading increased, but I wasn't broadening my horizons, mixing it up or challenging myself in any way.


Fast forward to the end of 2016.

I left London and my whole lifestyle was being reassessed. I had got so unwell in terms of my mental health that drastic change needed to be made.

As a part of that change, I began to gradually introduce new daily habits, which included things like a gratitude journal.


About 4 months ago, I added in a new habit of reading daily. I started with 20 minutes then quickly upped it to 30 minutes.

It's a long enough amount of time to completely get lost in a book, without eating up a huge chunk of the day.

I tend to switch off any screens or distractions, set a 30 minute timer, and off I go. Sometimes, the 30 minutes race by and I carry on past the timer. Other times, I don't want to read, but after that half hour has passed I feel so much better.

I've been diving into both fiction and non-fiction and trying new authors, themes and styles and I am absolutely loving it.

I've not managed every single day without fail, but I'd say about 90% of the days I've done it, and it's definitely a routine I'll be keeping up.


Let me know if you have any great daily habits I need to be including, or have any book recommendations!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Recipe Post #12: The simplest spaghetti and fresh tomato dinner

On the evening I made this pasta, the plan had been to make courgetti with tomato, basil and balsamic.

But then there were no courgettes in the shops.

And then my balsamic reduction went to pot.

So I improvised with what I had in front of me.

The result was the most simple, fresh, delicious spaghetti dish.

It almost didn't feel worth posting about, but I think it can be so easy to forget the really simple things once you've got into a pattern of trying to experiment with your meals more.


Ingredients:

  • spaghetti
  • 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • black pepper and sea salt, to taste
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
This doesn't really need instructions: olive oil in a pan, add the garlic, tomatoes, then cooked spaghetti and finish with basil and lemon juice!

It made a really nice change to a thicker tomato-based sauce, and felt like a very fresh, light dinner for an easy evening.

When I don't feel inspired around dinnertime, I sometimes panic and default to foods that really aren't the best for me. This reminded me that the simplest of meals can be fresh, reasonably healthy but very speedy and fuss-free.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange Theatre

Last week, my dad booked the pair of us last minute tickets to Twelfth Night at the Royal Exchange Theatre. We love theatre, we love that particular theatre and we are fans of Shakespeare.

This offering did not let us down.


Before I start, the show is running for about another week, so grab your tickets right now. I was surprised by the amount of empty seats there were when we went - this production deserves to be sold out night after night.

Shakespeare's plays have been performed again and again, retold in many ways and reimagined by so many performers. I've seen my fair share of both the very good and the very poor! I'd put this up with my very favourites.

I'm usually someone who leans towards the tragedies rather than the comedies, and I think that's because comedy can arguably be more difficult to get right.


This truly was 'Shakespeare done right'. It was bawdy, rowdy, musical, lively... it felt like a true celebration of the way these plays were written to be performed. It was laugh out loud comedy and the famous words were handled with slick ease by a brilliant cast.

I love theatre performed in the round and this show was well-directed to really make use of the space The actors addressed every part of the theatre and there were moments where the audience just felt a part of everything happening on the stage. I was particularly impressed by the use of the sand laid on the floor and the rain used multiple times throughout the evening.

The music plays a huge part in this production, and the musicians executed skillful scene transitions, sometimes playing from their booth up on the second level and sometimes wandering as a group of travelling players through the scenes. The music in the opening scene was incredibly atmospheric, and combined with the lighting offered a mesmeric start to the show.


Faith Omole played the role of Viola excellently - I was so drawn to her every moment she was on the stage. Her performance was faultless, and her singing was truly beautiful and something I'd listen to again and again.

Anthony Calf took on the part of poor old Malvolio with skill, pulling huge laughs from the audience again and again, handling his character's decline with conviction. Maria (Mina Anwar) provided another huge dose of comedy, although I think she sometimes got so carried away in the excitement of her character that diction wasn't always as clear as it could be.

I really enjoyed Kevin Harvey's accent (as Orsino) and found him incredibly likeable. He handled the duality of powerful king and lovesick puppy well, and he and Omole interacted beautifully.

The last cast member I'll mention is Simon Armstrong, who made a superb Sir Toby Belch. He was funny and clever, and commanded attention in every scene. I'm still not quite sure if the broken electric guitar in the 'party' scene was supposed to happen or he cleverly improvised by summoning his acoustic guitar, but either way, it worked!


It's been a while since I've seen any Shakespeare on stage, and this production reminded me why I love it, It's an intelligent, witty, musical, energetic version of the play, and well worth a watch.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

I Capture the Castle, Bolton Octagon

When I was younger, I loved Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', so the news it was being turned into a musical was very welcome.

On Thursday evening, I took my first trip to the Bolton Octagon and was transported right back into that world my imagination had loved.

This adaptation is a beautiful one - whimsical, innovative and performed by a highly accomplished cast.


It was always going to be a challenge to transfer to the stage a story that plays out largely in the head and diary or 17 year-old Cassandra, but this play handles that obstacle well.

Early scenes saw her writing in her diary, with the rest of the cast pausing in freeze frame as she added extra commentary and asides. This went on for just long enough to let audiences realise we were viewing events through her eyes, and set up the idea that what we were seeing maybe wasn't 100% truth, but a truth through the eyes of a young woman.

Adding well to this effect was Cassandra's very 'realistic' character set alongside the rest of the cast, who were really more like caricatures. They were real people, but we were viewing them as characters in her story. The set, too, with a castle created out of piled up old chairs, enhanced this recurring idea of reality, truth and storytelling, adding a childlike, playful layer to the very real struggles of life living in this dilapidated frame.

It's rare that I see a show I know nothing about, and musicals in particular I usually know the music of inside out before attending, so it was a lovely experience to let this one wash over me, and be introduced to the music in its proper form, on stage with live musicians (a band of three - I think - who were brilliant). Composer Steven Edis has done a superb job with the music of this show, to the point there didn't even feel like there was a transition between the spoken word and song, because it blended seamlessly. There were mixed influences, including folksong and American swing, and song after song I thoroughly enjoyed. My particular favourites were the opening song, for its scene-setting prowess, Aunt Leda's song about making Steven a star, and the quartet between Cassandra, Rose, Simon and Neil.


When presenting a brand new musical based on a much-loved novel, it's important to get your casting right. I Capture the Castle has done just that.

I could write an entire piece about Lowri Izzard, who took on the lead role of Cassandra. In my opinion, nobody could have played this role better. She occupied that in between space of girl and woman so well, taking us on a journey of her own discovery, and I truly felt I was watching Cassandra, not an actress playing her. In addition to that, her vocals were spot on, with songs like 'Words Words Words' in Act 2 really demonstrating her range and control.

Topaz was played by Suzanne Ahmet, and was a personal favourite. It's a dramatic, flamboyant role, but a woman who clearly does have issues and depth. Ahmer rose to the challenge, and I particularly enjoyed the rich, low tones of her voice. Ben Watson took on the part of her husband, James, and I thought he embodied the tortured novelist well, really coming to life in Act 2.

Simon (Theo Boyce) and Neil (Luke Dale) were a believable double act, with their presence always very clearly felt on stage, representing the overwhelming impact their arrival had on the lives of the central family. I did at times want a little more from them in their quieter moments, maybe more reaction to the activity unfolding around them, but they fulfilled the role well. Isaac Stanmore's Stephen - although I did struggle to decide what his accent was supposed to be as it appeared to alter throughout - was the lovable 'boy next door', truly doting on Cassandra. His enthusiasm was infectious and you really found yourself rooting for him.

The women, though, were the real stars of the show, and joining Izzard and Ahmet were Kate Batter (Rose), Julia St John (Mrs Cotton) and Shona White (Leda). Rose is a tricky one, as at first glance she could come across shallow, but Batter played out her story well, blossoming on her own journey of finding herself and realising her true wants and needs. St John and White had the audience in the palm of their hands during their duet about men and their shortcomings, and both women confidently dominated their scenes in the way such women clearly would have done. Shona White's voice was really brilliant, and I could happily have listened to her sing for much longer.


I could continue, but really my message is that you need to get out there and see this show. It's a highly accomplished new musical, with slick direction and choreography, a strong cast and beautiful music. At its centre is an actress (Lowri Izzard) who will keep audience after audience captivated, and I hope to see this show continue for a good time.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Ghost, The Lowry

Post update: Since publishing this review, Carolyn Maitland has let me know she was unwell and didn't perform the role last night. Frustratingly, we were not told this. Maybe this was part of the answer as to why the show didn't feel at its full energy. Hopefully Carolyn feels much better soon and can return to the role!

After having first seen Ghost performed at GSA a couple of years ago and being wowed, I was so excited to see the touring production was coming to The Lowry.

As we took our seats last night, I was ready to be swept along again in the emotion and pace of the show, which is packed with great songs.

Unfortunately, I came away so, so disappointed.

I'm not sure if everyone was having a bit of an off night, but it was one of the most disappointing professional productions I've seen for a long time.


I'm not going to spend a long time tearing it apart as that just feels negative and unnecessary, but I just wanted to share the five things where I felt the show could really have been lifted.

I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has seen the production whilst on tour, because looking at the calibre of the cast and team involved I'm struggling to believe the whole tour was presented in the way the show was last night.


1) Sam (Andy Moss) and Mollie seemed to be struggling with some of their vocals. It felt like they were straining for the big notes and that their voices were tired, and 'Here Right Now' in particular was very pitchy.

2) The American accents were very hit and miss for most characters, apart from Jacqui Dubois as Ode Mae Brown, who offered the most confident and polished performance of the night.

3) The choreography wasn't particularly innovative, and felt quite flat throughout. When I've seen the show before, songs like 'More and More' have been much more high energy and exciting.

4) The special effects, which I'd previously heard were very impressive, were very simple and it was clear how they were being achieved. Maybe this is because special effects on stage have come on leaps and bounds since Ghost first began, but I think a lot more could have been done for that 'wow' factor.

5) The combination of these factors and others meant I just didn't feel much emotion at all. It's a highly charged show, a brilliant story and has some beautiful songs, and last time I saw it I was an emotional wreck. I do get moved to tears fairly often (it's a running joke among my friends), but last night I felt none of that. I just let it wash over me.


I'm going to leave this here as there's not much more to say; I was just really sad to come away feeling so differently to the way I expected.

I'm usually incredibly lucky with theatre. I go to an awful lot of shows and do seem to pick brilliant ones, but last night reminded me that, sometimes, things can't all just be fantastic!

Hopefully, last night was a bit of an off night and I just got unlucky. The cast clearly have a lot of experience between them, so I don't doubt they could pull off a great show. Unfortunately, last night was just not the night for that.


Monday, 24 April 2017

Chain hotels in Central London: Travelodge vs. Premier Inn

A few weeks ago, we spent a weekend in London, and trying to keep costs down we opted for a Travelodge night (we had a voucher) and a Premier Inn night. Usually, we spend a long time hunting and often stay in independent hotels in London as it can work out cheaper, but this weekend we needed easy and functional!

I've stayed in hotels of both chains many times, all over the country, and do quite like the fact you always know what you're going to get. Travelodges tend to be more simple and very functional, whereas Premier Inns feel that little bit more comfy, so it just depends on the reason for your stay.


Travelodge, London Central Kings Cross

This was not my first stay in this particular hotel. When I used to live in Macclesfield and have regular work trips to London, this was often where I stayed as it was so close to both the train station and the London office. It was always exactly what I needed, and I never had any issues.

But I've never stayed there on a Saturday night before.

Two quick disclaimers before I continue:

1) We had a voucher covering part of our stay as an apology for a very poor stay late last year at a different (Central London) Travelodge.

2) Whilst I haven't stayed in this hotel on a Saturday night before, I've stayed at plenty of other London hotels at weekends, so I'm not naïve to the fact there are likely to be lots of large groups and probably drunk parties going on.

Unfortunately, our Saturday night stay was awful, probably one of the worst hotel nights I've ever had.

The room was absolutely fine, very clean, with a comfy bed and a desk fan, which definitely came in handy as we were in London on the weekend temperatures were in the high twenties. The bathroom was a little dated, but everything worked and the shower was very powerful, which always get s thumbs up.

The noise, however, was unbelievable. Our room seemed to be underneath a corridor, and even the quietest walker would sound like an elephant about to come through the ceiling. We were also right next to the door onto our corridor, which was slammed all night and everyone had to walk through to get to their rooms.

There was drunken group after loud group returning to the hotel throughout the night, waking us at least eight or nine times through the night. These groups wouldn't then go straight to their room, there would be shouting, screaming and loud laughter. Multiple times I reached to the phone to call reception, but when you're warm in bed and already exhausted you don't necessarily want to have to do that.

I completely understand people are going to want to go out, but I think it's the responsibility of the hotel to make sure guests who are not there for that purpose are also able to have a good stay. Maybe there should be a system where 10 minutes after a loud group returns to the hotel, a member of staff does a quick circuit of the corridors, to make sure the noise hasn't continued.

I don't know what the answer is, but we got about two hours (maximum) or broken sleep. On our way out the next morning, there was no member of staff on reception, so we just left feeling like no one was at all bothered about our stay or our custom.

Unfortunately, this stay got a big thumbs down.


Premier Inn, Leicester Square

My gut instinct going in was that we would prefer the Premier Inn night, because they do pitch themselves as having that little extra bit of comfort, and I've always found their hotels to be far more consistent across the chain. After Saturday at the Travelodge, I hoped a Central London Premier Inn would deliver that same experience and let us have a good night's sleep after a day of watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Luckily, this Premier Inn was exactly what we needed.

It's situated right in the middle of Leicester Square, so if you want to be in the thick of it for a touristy weekend in London, it's pretty perfect. It's surrounded by restaurants, and also has its own bar and restaurant in the hotel.

You head inside and up to the reception area and it feels so calm and quiet in contrast to the outside. We were able to drop off our bags early, which is handy if you're going to be out and about in the city, and the welcome was friendly.

The room was much, much nicer than the night before. It was very spacious, nicely laid out and the bed was huge and comfortable. The bathroom was also more modern, with another good shower. The hotel was so quiet, despite it being incredibly busy in Leicester Square and being next door to a club - you'd never have guessed you were anywhere near the city centre once you were inside.




The Verdict

I think this one is obvious!

The Premier Inn offered the better stay in every sense. It was quiet, the staff cared, the room was nicer and they offered exactly what I've come to expect from the brand.

The Travelodge stay was frustrating and noisy, and we left without even seeing a member of staff, so it was easy to feel like nobody cared.

If you're a hotel breakfast fan, Travelodge only offers a continental option, but it's served in a nice, bright reception room. Premier Inn offers the full works, and a cooked breakfast was very much enjoyed the following morning!

As I said at the beginning, I tend to search all over the place when it comes to hotels in London, because the prices get so huge, but it was interesting to be able to compare two chains with which I've always been perfectly happy outside of the city centre.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Recipe Post #11: Spiced Chickpea Burgers

Earlier this week, I tried out a new recipe on my family which went down an absolute treat.

After a failed chickpea burger attempt the week before (a Jamie recipe calling for FAR too much sweetcorn), I wanted to redeem myself and offer up a good burger.

The winning recipe came from the 'Homemade By You' section on the Sainsbury's recipes website.



You'll need:

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1.5tsp each of ground cumin, chilli powder and garam masala
  • 2tsp ground coriander
  • 2tsp grated root ginger
  • 2 cans chickpeas, drained
  • 2 slices wholemeal bread, in breadcrumbs
To serve:
  • Whatever you like! We went for chunky sweet potato and normal potato wedges with a simple salad - and ketchup of course.

 Pop some oil into a pan and gently cook the onion and garlic for a minute, before adding in the ginger, dried spices, salt and 50ml water. Cook until the mixture is dry. Add in the chickpeas, and again cook until any moisture has evaporated. This happens fairly quickly.

Pour about three-quarters of the mixture into a food processor and blend until smooth, then use a potato masher to crush the mixture left over in the pan. When you add the food processor contents back into the pan this should give a good burger consistency - mainly smooth with some good texture left over.

Once cooled slightly, shape the mixture into 6 burgers, and add to an oil. Cook over  medium heat for 6-8mins, turning in the middle, until lightly browned.

Serve with your sides of choice, and enjoy!



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