Thursday, 22 October 2015

Eating Italian

It’s no secret that I love Italian food. It’s always my default, and especially when eating out there just seems to be something for everyone.

Here’s a rundown of three places I’ve loved eating at recently.

Spaghetti House

Spaghetti House have numerous locations across London and I’ve been consistently impressed. I’ve found there’s occasionally slow service, but the quality of the food is brilliant.

On this particular visit, we sampled the garlic bread (the best I’ve had anywhere), a burger and chips, and classic tomato and basil spaghetti.

With pasta made fresh and beautiful ingredients, this is a chain I know I’ll keep returning to.


I stumbled across L’Ulivo on a day out with my parents, and it turned out to be a great discovery. We went at a late summer’s lunchtime, and sat outside near busy Leicester Square.

Although the service was a little slow, the meals were delicious. My pasta was full of perfectly roasted vegetables, my dad’s pizza was beautifully cooked, and mum was certainly happy with her huge portion of spaghetti Bolognese.

This made a lovely alternative to always heading to the chain restaurants – much as I’m a fan, it’s nice to try somewhere new!


A personal favourite. It’s that bit more special than a couple of the other well-known Italian chains, but still reasonably priced and with a lovely atmosphere. I’ve visited multiple times and always found the staff to be really friendly.

On one pre-theatre visit with my parents (we were off to see Memphis), we ended up getting just the meal we needed.

After burgers and pizzas, my parents enjoyed mini desserts with their coffees, which is always a good alternative to having to buy a huge dessert.

Where are your favourite Italian restaurants in London? I’m on the hunt to discover many more!

And what’s your favourite cuisine?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Busy Old Exciting Old London

London is a busy place.

It’s full of people, full of events, full of tourist attractions. Whether you’re a born and bred Londoner, or move to the capital for work, family, or a whole host of other reasons, there are so many people calling this place home.

Since August, I’ve been one of them.

I moved here for work, a week before starting my new job, and to say the few months since then have been a whirlwind would be an understatement.

I can count on one hand the number of days I’ve had totally free, to do nothing at all.

Don’t get me wrong, the things I’ve been doing have been my choice, and I’ve loved it, but sometimes I’m left wishing I had a bit more time to do nothing.

What’s so silly about that thought is that it’s totally in my control. I don’t HAVE to book so many theatre trips, or arrange so many meals out, or catch up with three different people in a week. But there’s something about the pace of this city that makes you feel like if you don’t do things NOW then when on earth will you?

I’ve always been a fairly impatient person, and if I’m going to do something I want to know the where, when and how immediately, but there’s something about the energy of this city which has made those impulses in me even stronger.

And the thing is, there’s so much going on here, you could easily fill every evening and weekend and not have explored half of the things you could have. There’s costs of course, as well. You can’t afford to do everything, frustrating as that can be. Particularly when you’re in such an expensive city (it’s been a slight shock to the system for this northerner to adjust to!)

I had been warned by people I know who already worked in the city that there’s an expectation of ‘busyness’. That when they’d be asked what they were doing at the weekend, or that evening an answer of ‘nothing’ would draw funny looks. And it’s true! You feel like you SHOULD answer with some incredibly cultural/virtuous/exciting answer.

Have we forgotten how to be quiet? How to be still?

Even when we’re at home we’re switched on to so many devices, and through so many social channels.

How often do you just switch off, and take time to just be you?

It’s something I’m consciously trying to do much more of. I love being busy, but I’m someone who really relishes and NEEDS quiet, alone time.

So now, content in the knowledge I’ve got lots of lovely and exciting things planned into my diary over the next few months… I’m off to read my book.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical

An improvised musical sounds like it could be either brilliant or terrible. Having heard such good reports of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, though, the intrigue peeked and I clicked to buy tickets.
I of course can’t tell you about the show you’ll see, if you go, as every performance is of a brand new musical. But I hope that by relaying what happened the night I was there, you might see just what a fantastic night of entertainment it was. (One of my colleagues booked his tickets immediately after I told him about it!)

Housed in a small auditorium at the Apollo, even those at the very back are only a stone’s throw from the stage, heightening the sense of inclusivity throughout the performance. Show number 640 opened with Sean McCann, ‘The Writer’ (and an excellent, charismatic narrator throughout) receiving a call from his producer demanding a new musical by 10pm. After appealing to the audience for setting suggestions, he gave us the chance to whoop and cheer to select our favourite one.

The winner? A 1920s Shanghai opium den. Very specific!
The title suggestion from another audience-member?
The next order of business was to throw five musicals at them, which would form the basis of the song styles throughout the show. Our choices were an eclectic mix: Cabaret, In the Heights, Anything Goes, Avenue Q, and ‘any Disney’.
And off they went. A Cabaret-style opening number introduced a honeymooning couple, who would quickly be drawn into the seedy underworld of Shanghai’s opium dens. Also present were the groom’s two brothers, who were scheming to get rid of unbearable ‘it-girl’ Jane, their brother’s new wife. Along the way, they both ended up having affairs with her… that’s the kind of thing that happens when you spend your time in the smoky ‘Blue Oyster Bar’, according to the two lizard ladies who had lost their own men.
The second half brought us back to England, to face the consequences of the extended time spent in Shanghai, at the huge stately home occupied by the brothers and their parents. Somehow, in two hours, from the start-point of just a setting, we had seen a full story, with beginning, middle, end, and plenty of twists and turns.

Huge credit must go to Ruth Bratt and Pippa Evans, potentially one of the best double-acts I’ve ever seen on stage. The pair played a variety of characters, from the ‘lizard ladies’, to the boys’ parents, to workers in the opium dens of Shaghai. They played off one another perfectly, and I’m not sure there were many audience members who weren’t in stitches at their one-liners and adopted character traits. Their voices, too, were fantastic. Adam Meggido was another favourite as one of the brothers, who was always there with a new prop, or a little glance to the audience which would prompt plenty of laughter.
As the show went on, every now and then The Writer would move the story along, and bring in a new musical style from the list we had selected as an audience. I was completely in awe of the way the cast plucked from nowhere full lyrics, and very often dance routines, to meet the contexts and styles.
A highlight was the ‘any Disney’ medley. The Writer paused and asked us to shout out a few Disney films, and the results were The Lion King, The Jungle Book, High School Musical and Frozen. Within seconds, the characters had launched into my favourite song of the show, seamlessly moving between the styles of these four very different musicals.
Throughout the interval, we were encouraged to tweet to @theShowstoppers what we wanted to happen next, and having kept an eye on the mentions coming in, I was intrigued to see how on earth they would be worked in. But worked in they were, and we ended up with a martial arts duel in the style of The Confrontation from Les Miserables, and a beautiful song from Sarah-Louise Young in the style of Memory from Cats.
Cats were a recurring theme (bizarre as it sounds), due to a small boy in the front row being spotted clutching a copy of a book called ‘Kittens in Trouble’. Suddenly, this was the favourite childhood story of the three brothers. Prompted by an interval tweet, there was even a reading of a paragraph, set to song, in the second half!

I could probably write for pages and pages about the brilliance of this cast. There were maybe two moments in the whole show where there was a tiny wobble, which was immediately picked up and worked back into the performance. In a two-hour improvised show complete with tonnes of songs, harmonies and full dance routines, I’d say that’s pretty impressive.
The laughs didn’t stop coming, and as an audience you felt completely involved in the creation of what was unfolding in front of you. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to what’s happening on stage, and to realise nobody but the people in the theatre last Friday night will ever experience the show we did, in the way that we did.

If I had unlimited funds I would return night after night to see the fresh material this group come up with. A fantastic night of musical comedy entertainment. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Work/Life Lessons from the Candidates of The Apprentice...

Well, it’s back: The Apprentice. Which truly means it’s Autumn, and that I’ll be glued to the tv on Wednesday evenings.
I’ve got such a love/hate relationship with the show. I love watching it, but I hate some of the traits it shows up in the candidates.
Of course it’s all entertainment, and we know these people would never make the series if they weren’t larger-than-life characters, but sometimes you just want to cover your eyes and live in denial that people could be so rude/loud/incapable/selfish/bullish (delete as appropriate).
Editing plays a part too, but some of the scenes are just ridiculous. Like the man who told Lord Sugar no one had volunteered to be PM and he had expected more confidence… When he hadn’t put himself forward either.
Or the project managers who seem unable to hear the voices of anyone else in the room.
Or the man who applied to a show under LORD SUGAR admitting he couldn’t sell face-to-face. Of course, plenty get by in business without this skill – he ran an online business, for example – but past seasons of The Apprentice make it clear how much value Lord Sugar places on these ‘traditional’ skills.
Or the weekly scenes we all know are coming where candidates turn into children as soon as they’re seated in the boardroom. The holes people dig for themselves are unbelievable, and I’m often left unsure how grown adults can be so bullish about something even when they’ve been completely proven wrong.
By acting on a rule of ‘do the opposite of what happens in The Apprentice’, I’ve taken a few key work (and life lessons) from sparkling Apprentice candidates past and present:
  • Don’t keep digging when you’re already halfway to Australia
  • Admit if you’ve done something wrong. Especially if it’s a 100% fact, such as ‘you sold nothing’
  • Work together. Gaining the respect of those you work with is a way to let everyone’s strengths shine through, and means you get a chance to step forward when a task comes up you know you’d be good at
  • Respect the advice of those with more experience. If you’re not willing to learn, how will you ever progress?
  • Don’t be petty. Don’t change your story halfway through because you can see something’s not going your way
  • And don’t complain about traits or actions of others that you’re displaying yourself. Before saying someone is too loud, or not taking other people’s ideas into account, or not pulling their weight, take a little look in the mirror and check you’re not another version of that person you can’t stand working with

Are you a fan of The Apprentice? Who are your favourites (and least favourites) so far?

The Reading List #31

How do you decide what to read?

Last year, I stayed with my cousin and his wife for the weekend, where Kath pulled out lists of books she intended to work her way through. There was The Guardian’s ‘top 100 novels’ and one from The Times, and from just about every other publication you can imagine. On each, she had crossed of what she had read, and highlighted some she was planning to move onto next. All-in-all, it seemed like quite a good plan, but takes a bit of effort to get started! What’s your ‘method’?

Here’s the latest things I can ‘tick off’ my list:-

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres

In 1941, Captain Corelli, an Italian officer, is posted to Cephallonia. At first, he is ostracised, but slowly proves himself. Alongside this, the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to France are being left unanswered.

This book addresses a fragile triangle, set against the backdrop of war. Parts of the narrative were beautiful and I liked the different perspectives from which the story was told. Overall, though, considering so many people rave about the beauty of this novel, I think I was left a little underwhelmed.

Lost Innocence, Susan Lewis

Alicia returns to the family home after the death of her husband, and has to face her sister in-law, who nearly tore the family apart. Sabrina’s daughter Annabelle then accuses Alicia’s son, Nathan, of a crime he didn’t commit…

This is a fairly easy read, but long enough to give it a bit of depth. There are a lot of tangled lies, but it remains believable, without running away with itself as can happen in some family sagas. It was interesting to not always be clear who was right and wrong, and for that reason it kept me turning the pages.

Daniel, Henning Mankell

Bengler is in the African desert, researching a new insect, and finds a young boy whom he adopts, names Daniel, and takes home to Sweden. Daniel yearns for the desert and his real family, with only one real friend to confide in.

Set in the 1870s, this was a beautiful exploration of what it feels like to be an outsider within a new culture. The themes of displacement and tragedy are made almost more tragic because of the simplicity of the language. Lots of themes of this novel tied into the subject of my dissertation at university, so it was nice to be reminded of some of the elements of those novels and writers I had studied.

Serena, Ron Rash

George and Serena Pemberton arrive in the North Carolina mountains after their marriage, and Serena quickly gets involved in the timber work, and pursuits like hunting rattlesnakes, until the news she can’t have a child sets new events in motion.

This book has it all: revenge, betrayal, violence and ambition. But what it also captures perfectly is the everyday lives of the workers in the town, with fantastic characters set against the bleak, mountainous landscape. I’m a huge fan of Rash’s short stories, and this novel showed me he is equally good at length as he is in his short collections.

Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear what you thought.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Green Day's American Idiot - Review

 I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I took my seat at The Arts Theatre for a matinee performance of American Idiot. All I knew beforehand was that it was a musical based on the music of Green Day, and purposefully had read nothing else about it, as I like to avoid holding any preconceptions as far as possible.

On entering the small auditorium, news clips were already playing on a small screen on the stage, mainly in black and white, from the aftermath of 9/11. This was loud, to the point where normal conversation was disrupted, and created a tense atmosphere even before the show began.
Green Day’s American Idiot album was written at a particular moment in time, and this is what the musical serves to portray. Post-9/11, the country was changed forever, and the album attempts to sum up the ‘new’ state of America. Though I’m familiar with many Green Day songs, I hadn’t before paused to listen to this album straight through, and I know now I was really missing the message.
The musical moves through the tracks of the album, and treats the songs with utmost respect. There are none of the remixed/drastically altered versions of songs seen in other ‘jukebox musicals’, and there is a real feeling that the musical is an attempt to present the album as written, rather than trying to loosely attach a story to the words of musicians.

The actors making up the cast were excellently selected. It’s a show covering a whole range of styles and hard-hitting themes, and had it been performed badly I think it could have been very poor. To handle themes of war, drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, and the wider state of America, takes a skilled cast with the talent to know when to hold back, just as well as they know when to completely let go.
Johnny (Aaaron Sidwell) blew me away. His voice and guitar-playing were fantastic, but he had such an incredible hold over every element of his character, and it’s a character which goes on a tough journey. One of the most intense moments of the show was a scene where he is injecting himself in the bathroom. Minute after minute of silence was peppered only with the sounds of him dropping a syringe, or taking sharp breaths.  Silence on stage is a powerful tool, and he handled this scene, and similar scenes, brilliantly.
Alexis Gerred played a fantastic Tunny, and his song from the hotel bed was one of the most stunning moments of the show. You could hear pain in every note, and he was certainly one of the clearest things I remembered on leaving the theatre. I also had a soft spot for Will (Steve Rushton), who won my award for favourite voice, and beautifully portrayed the ‘wasted life’ of a young man forced to stay behind due to personal circumstances, while his mates travelled off to try and find themselves.
The St Jimmy character (Lucas Rush) was a real standout, with a physical appearance setting him apart from the other men, and an easy confidence that made it clear why Johnny would look up to this ‘character’ as some kind of idol. The scene where this all unravels, and Johnny replays their scenes together but taking his ‘rightful’ place as the ‘St Jimmy’ role was one of the most intense couple of minutes I’ve ever seen in a musical.
Heather (Natasha Barnes) and Whatshername (Amelia Lily) both had stunning, distinctive voices, which beautifully punctuated the male-dominated track list. The cast for this show is small, but the power between every voice is undeniable, and the wall of sound created was of the highest standard.
The performance carries straight through, with no interval, and as a result the intensity never drops. As I’ve mentioned, the subject matters are heavy, and the music is strong, and the show has been woven together in a way that really presents a ‘moment’ capturing the American Idiot album. I’ve listened to it beginning to end multiple times post-show, reliving the moments the cast shared.
Overall, I went in with few expectations, and left very pleasantly surprised.

What I saw was a great cast, handling fantastic music with respect, and using acting of the finest quality to present stories you can’t help but be affected by. I urge you to get a ticket if possible before the run ends, because I was truly impressed. 
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