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.


  • 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!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

My sister is running the marathon!

Tomorrow, on the 23rd April 2017, my younger sister is running the London Marathon.

About 8 months ago, she had never been on a run.

Tomorrow, she will run 26.2 miles as a part of Team NSPCC, and I could not be more proud if I tried.

Anyone who knows my sister will know she is stubborn, determined, fiercely independent and highly ambitious.

If she puts her mind to something, she will do it, even if she has to alter the plans a little along the way.

Interviewed yesterday on BBC Radio Newcastle, Kitty recalled watching the London Marathon on TV with our dad last year, saying she couldn't think of anything she would want to do less than go and run a marathon.

Two months later, she was a member of Team NSPCC.

Eight months of training later, the day is almost here.

Kate being Kate, taking on the challenge of going from non-runner to marathon runner was not enough, so she decided to combine it with a complete lifestyle change, adopting a plant-based diet, and removing gluten and refined sugars.

When she first told us of these plans, I have to admit we thought it was a passing idea.

But then the months went on and the training miles mounted.

She started a blog tracking her training and the reasons she was running, she had a new daily routine, her fitness levels were on the up and her new way of eating became not just a fad, but a new way of life she had fallen in love with.

Over the last eight months, she's transformed into someone who loves running, who learns about food and uses it to fuel her body.

She's done all the training alongside her usual hectic schedule whilst at university in Durham, and hasn't let her eyes drift from the end goal.

That goal is nearly here.

Tomorrow, she will run 26.2 miles.

Kitty's determination and independence always impresses me, but this year has undoubtedly seen some of her biggest changes and challenges yet, and I'm not sure anyone around her could fail to be inspired by the changes she's made and commitment she's shown.

Whatever her time tomorrow, whether she sprints or crawls over that finish line, she's left all of us in awe, and we are so, so proud.

If you'd like to help her along the way and support the incredible work of the NSPCC, her JustGiving page is right here.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Spoiler free: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Earlier this month, 18 months after the day I purchased the tickets, the time finally came for us to take our seats at the Palace Theatre, London, to experience five hours of theatre set in the wizarding world.

It's been a long wait.

One of the things I think has been truly wonderful about this play is that people really have been sticking to the 'rules', following that principle of '#keepthesecrets'.

Even since the release of the script in book form, I've heard no spoilers whatsoever, and was able to head into the theatre having no idea what to expect.

For that reason, this will be nothing like my normal theatre reviews, and will instead focus on my feelings about the day and the experience.

Like many people around my age, I grew up with Harry Potter. I read every book eagerly on release, have reread the whole series multiple times and have seen all of the films more than once.

I've visited the Warner Brothers' Studio Tour, and marvelled at J K Rowling's creativity and storytelling for years.

I'm also a huge fan of theatre, so the news that the world of Harry Potter was to grow a step further and the new story would take a different format was exciting.

One of the best things about being there on the day was that shared sense of anticipation. We had all waited for so long to see the show, and there was a real sense of companionship among those in the auditorium.

Everyone there was completely invested in the story and its characters and everyone spent the intervals and time between the two parts excitedly discussing what they had seen.

Visually, the show is fantastic. The special effects, lighting, choreography and direction deserve all the attention they have been getting, and there are still moments where we're wondering how on earth certain effects were achieved.

The cast, too, is a highly skilled one, and let me just say that Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy) was the absolute stand-out star, in my eyes.

Was it perfect? For me, no. I do have some pretty big issues with elements of the plot, and the way a couple of the characters were portrayed, but I'll save those to talk about with those who've already experienced the show.

What was truly brilliant, though, was the whole package. The excitement, the anticipation, the special effects, and the whole 'Harry Potter day out' that comes from watching two full length plays on a single Sunday.

We had the most brilliant day, around which we built a brilliant long weekend, and I'll hold it in my memory for a very long time.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Made in Dagenham, NK Theatre Arts

I had been told before seeing last week's production of Made in Dagenham that NK Theatre Arts is not just another amateur theatre group. I was told 'the production is professional in every respect apart from the fact the actors are unpaid'.

After watching that show, I'd chime into that discussion and say it was one of the best 'amateur' productions I've seen, and NK Theatre Arts has definitely got something special going on.

The Romiley Forum is a great home for productions, with a roomy auditorium, tiered seating and a large raised stage. There's a small bar area and those that work around the theatre clearly love what they're producing.

I saw Made in Dagenham when it was on in London and already knew I loved the musical, but was aware that timing is everything and it's a very strong ensemble show, so would demand a lot of the cast.

NK Theatre Arts well and truly rose to the challenge.

I'll start with that ensemble element, because Made in Dagenham is a group show. Yes, there are named parts and fantastic solos, but without a strong cast overall the show falls apart. Numbers like 'Everybody Out' and 'This is What We Want' demand feisty characters, strong vocals and slick choreography. The women in this production delivered these things confidently and to great effect, with those rousing numbers creating that same sense of excitement and solidarity among the audience as was achieved in the professional production I saw.

One of the things that often separates amateur and professional performances is the chorus. In a professional production, you can choose to focus in on any chorus member, whether or not they have a named part, and they will be completely absorbed in the scene and the role being created. In some amateur shows, you get the people that are there to make up the numbers, who are acting half-heartedly, or who aren't quite sure what they're doing.

In last week's show, you could have picked on any chorus member and seen they were completely lost in the moment. They all had a character, they all had a purpose, and they were all giving the show everything they could. By the end of 'Busy Woman' (the opening number), when I realised this was the case, I knew for sure we were in for an evening of great entertainment.

I also want to mention the strength of the male cast members. Another recurring issue for amateur productions is not having enough men who want to be involved, or certainly enough men with the confidence and ability needed to pull off some of the roles required. This show didn't face that issue. Yes, there weren't as many men as women, but the men who were there were strong. Most played multiple roles with seeming ease and brought plenty of laughs. A particular mention goes to Jay Dodd, who pulled of each of his roles brilliantly and prompted so much of our laughter! While we're on the subject of the male roles, too Callum Stretton was strong across his parts and had a stunning voice, and Michael Granby's Harold Wilson prompted a lot of laughter due to his confident delivery and excellent characterisation.

When it comes to the female characters, I've chosen just three to focus on, because I could easily write a paragraph about every cast member and we'd all be here all day.

Firstly, Gemma Glenncross was a perfect Beryl. She was absolutely hilarious, and it's a role that requires great timing. Her delivery was always spot on, and she wasn't 'acting' as Beryl; she truly became Beryl in every moment of every scene.

Secondly, Louise Shufflebotham as Barbara Castle. Castle was a larger than life character and it's a task to be able to play this role, deliver all the comedy value, but not turn her into a caricature. Shufflebotham's accent was consistent and her scenes all delivered well, but where she really blew me away was in 'An Ideal World'. It's a wordy song and tough to sing, but she delivered it with absolute ease, hitting those huge notes like she does it every day. It really was fantastic.

Finally, I can't end this review without talking about Dawn Wrigley's Rita O'Grady. While it's a big ensemble show, the woman at the centre of it has to be believable. She's real, she's strong, she doubts herself and she dusts herself off to become the mouthpiece for all of the other women. It's a demanding role, in terms of the songs, the sheer amount of lines to be remembered, and the challenge of entering into the body of a Dagenham housewife of the late 1960s. Her accent was spot on, her timing never failed, and she confidently led an incredibly strong cast throughout the entirety of the show.

As I've said, I could go on, but I think it's very clear how impressed I was by this show.

NK Theatre Arts deserve the praise I've heard about them, and here I am adding some more.

It was a superb production, and all involved should be incredibly pleased with themselves! I'll definitely be back to see more.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Book Challenge 2017: Months 1-3

Every three months, I'll be sharing my progress with the Book Challenge, aiming to read a book a month, one from each of the given categories. I already read a lot, but I thought it would get me to widen my net a little. You can read my selected list in my Book Challenge 2017: My Picks post.

So without futher ado, here are my reads from January, February and March.

January: A collection of short stories
Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a beautiful gem of a collection, made up of five short stories under an overarching theme of music. In Crooner, a guitarist meets his idol in Venice. Come Rain or Come Shine tells of a friend stuck between a couple whose marriage is deteriorating. Malvern Hills is a story of making fast judgements and having them challenged. Nocturne features a musician recovering from surgery, rediscovering his own sense of self. Finally, Cellists tells of a musician getting to know a man who sits and watches them perform daily in the piazza.

Ishiguro's writing style is beautiful, and I started my morning five days in a row with a story a day. Each transported me to another time and place, and there were threads of repeated themes across the collection that I really enjoyed, too. It's a thoughtful, neat collection and even appealed to this self-confessed 'not a huge fan of short stories'.

February: A book by a writer from a minority group
Passing, Nella Larsen

I first heard of this book during my time at university, and picked up this copy online for about 50p. Since then, it's been sitting on my shelf. I'm so pleased this challenge finally gave me the push to pick it up, because I can now see exactly why it was described to us at university as being such an important novel. It feels particularly relevant as I write this only days after a Rachel Dolezel Newsnight interview, a woman 'passing' as black for many years.

In 1920s Harlem, Irene bumps into a childhood friend, Clare, who is 'passing for white', married to a racist husband. The secret threatens to deeply affect both woman. It's a very readable, short novel, covering race, gender, marriage, nostalgia and the complex friendships that exist between women. Building slowly to a shocking ending, it's a read that left me with food for thought.

March: A book by a female author
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is one of the classics I've never got round to reading. I didn't cover it at school or university, and it's never jumped out to me as one I needed to get ticked off. Unfortunately, I wish I had stuck to that thought and chosen another option! Mansfield Park just was not my cup of tea. I love a lot of Austen, but this was my least favourite. It felt to me like it was full of all her lovely descriptions and observational brilliance, but with none of the excitement that carries some of her other novel forwards.

Fanny Price goes to live with her aunt and uncle, and this is the story of the household and those in and around it. It's a novel consumed by the ordinary and the everyday, and takes some patience. I loved and raced through the first 100 pages, enjoying Austen's familiar style, and it then picked up a little towards the end, but between those moments I wasn't convinced. It's a charming read, but was missing something, for me.

So far, so good. I read widely anyway, but I'm enjoying being forced to step a little out of my comfort zone, or being pushed to pick things up I've heard about before but have never made it to the top of me 'to read' pile.

A quarter of the way through the book challenge, I'm enjoying it and looking forward to what's coming next...

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Recipe Post #10: Garlic Courgette Bake with Pasta

One tasty - and very garlicky - meal I made for my mum and I ended up being a bit of an improvisation on the recipe I had found, but it went down a treat.

The original recipe was from the website, and was intended to serve six. Once the chopping was done, there didn't seem to be anywhere near those quantities, so we opted to serve the bake on top of pasta.

The result was a deliciously fresh pasta dish, bursting with tomatoes and full of garlic. 

The ingredients:
  • Pasta, to serve
  • 2 large courgettes, in chunks
  • 1 tsp chopped basil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • half cup Parmesan, shredded
  • chopped parsley or basil, to top
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Add the tomatoes, courgettes, parmesan, garlic and basil into a large bowl and mix thoroughly - really get your hands in there.

Pour the contents into a baking dish and bake in the oven for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want the courgette.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta to pack instructions, as usual.

Put the cooked pasta into a bowl, top with the courgette, tomato, garlicky goodness, and devour!

The quantities given above didn't leave us with too much left over, just a good lunch-sized portion, so double up if cooking for more than two.

Definitely another success, and a meal I'll be making again soon.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Spoiler alert: I'm joining the ranks of those who love the new Beauty and the Beast film.

I've got to say, after my initial excitement at the announcement a long time ago, I got slightly nervous about this remake. I'm one of millions of girls who adored Beauty and the Beast when I was younger, identifying with Belle's bookish ways and loving every song and dress.

I'm a big fan of the animated film and of the stage musical, so I wasn't quite sure where the new film would fit into that well-crafted world.

Let me dive right in and say that I loved Emma Watson as Belle. When she was first announced, I had my doubts, but after she'd been on screen a few minutes I was sold. I thought her voice suited the songs nicely, she played the part well and she looked absolutely beautiful, too. She also deserves credit for the fact she must have done a lot of her acting to empty screens and empty rooms, such as in the 'Be Our Guest' sequence, but she pulled that off pretty well.

Dan Stevens' Beast was also a success in my eyes. I enjoyed his singing, and the fact the Beast looked so human in many ways, especially facially. I thought the 'Something There' montage was really nicely done, and found the chemistry between Belle and the Beast believable.

Luke Evans and Josh Gad pulled off the double act of Gaston and LeFou brilliantly, and elicited all the laughs those roles deserve. Kevin Kline as Maurice was also a lovely bit of casting - I enjoyed his scenes very much.

The world of the castle was beautifully created, and visually was a real spectacle. The human-like qualities of the animate objects were done well, and the vocal work of the actors behind them really worked. A special mention goes to Ewan McGregor's French accent - I had no idea it was him until the end! The only one I was slightly disappointed by was Emma Thompson, who I think I thought would be the perfect Mrs Potts, so the fact she didn't blow me away left me a little let down. Having said that, there was nothing 'bad' about the performance.

And then to the overall 'feel' of the film. It had all the spirit and joy of the original animation, and group scenes such as 'Gaston' and 'Belle' were really just like watching the animated characters turn to life. The important moments were all there, like the reveal of the yellow dress and every song we know and love, with a few extra embellishments to add more depth to this new telling of the tale. It was nice to get some insight into what happened to Belle's mother (although I'm not sure I particularly liked the route it went down), and I liked the little addition of the villagers forgetting the castle and its inhabitants existed, leading to some emotional and comedic reunions at the end!

I came out of the cinema feeling like I had truly been whisked away and swept along in a magical story I've known for years. It's visually beautiful, carefully and lovingly made, and is definitely a version of the story I will be re-watching in the future.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Evita, The Lowry

Evita has arrived at The Lowry, and this current tour is unmissable.

I saw the show on tour about five or six years ago and loved it, but last night's production made the first I saw seem like an amateur performance.

The current touring cast give the show a whole new lease of life.

I came away with a whole new appreciation for the show; songs I had never been a huge fan of became some of my favourites, I noticed subtleties in the narrative I've never seen before and the casting was genius.

Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, a working class girl who worked her way up the ranks to become wife of Peron, and First Lady of Argentina.

The role of Eva is therefore an incredibly complex one, beginning as a 15 year-old girl full of dreams, rising to power and eventually meeting her death, due to cancer, at just 33. For an actress this would be impressive, but you've got to then add to that the fact she is a woman who manipulates everything around her, and plans and executes her life in an incredibly clever fashion. As an audience, you've got to believe the country adored her while also seeing her flaws. In previous versions I've seen, all I have taken away is the story of working girl to woman of the people.

Emma Hatton completed the role. For the first time, I felt I truly saw the whole character of Eva. She skilfully planned the life she desired, and she did it well. From the moment Hatton entered the stage she was flawless. As 15 year-old Eva, she was youthful and full of energy, not to mention a brilliant dancer. As the show progressed, she matured gracefully, fully embodying her role as Eva Duarte de Peron, leading her husband's rise to power.  Hatton's voice is unquestionably brilliant, but the way she controlled her vocal to chart the growth of her character was quite remarkable, She held back some of its full power until as late as mid-way through the second half, when she really let that full, rich voice take hold. 'Rainbow High' was absolutely phenomenal in this respect, and was one of my favourite songs of last night's performance. Before that, Hatton's 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' had the whole audience enraptured; you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

In the final stages of the show, Hatton also mastered the art of 'singing really well while making it clear your character is dying', which is a tough one to get right, and 'You Must Love Me' had me in tears. Ending the show with 'Lament', post-death, Hatton had one final chance to showcase her Eva, and my goodness was it brilliant.

Stepping into the role of Che was Gian Marco Schiaretti, and he too blew me away. To begin with, his voice was absolutely stunning, and he never once let his character slip, whether that was in his stance, facial expressions, or through his words. He was a commanding presence on stage, and skillfully guided the narrative. It's another tough part, and I have never seen it executed as well as last night, on stage or screen. Every word was executed with purpose, and for the first time I really heard all of the words. For the first time, none of the little asides were lost on me, and Schiaretti added that depth of meaning to every single scene. 'High Flying Adored', which in the past I've found a little boring, was beautiful, and the climactic 'Waltz for Eva and Che' showed off both Hatton and Schiaretti superbly.

While I'm on a roll with writing about the songs I've not loved in the past but that my mind was changed about last night, Kevin Stephen-Jones most definitely deserves a mention. I would never have picked out 'She is a Diamond' as a highlight before, but he delivered this beautifully, and throughout the show I enjoyed his depiction of Peron.

One more solo I can't possibly not mention in a review of Evita is one of my long-time favourites, 'Another Suitcase in Another Hall'. It's an unusual moment, in some ways, to give such a significant song to a character only ever known as 'Peron's Mistress', but is one of the most brilliant songs in the show. Sarah O'Connor delivered the song perfectly, and the audience were completely swept away in it. Her voice had such a pure, beautiful tone, and it had all the impact that song deserves.

The ensemble, too, were slick and the choreography was brilliant. 'Buenos Aires' was a favourite in that regard, along with what is always a highlight of the show: 'Peron's Latest Flame'. The soldiers and ladies had perfect diction - not always a feat achieved in group numbers - and they elicited laughs from the audience in all the right places.

I think it's very clear to see I was impressed by the performance last night, and I would very happily go again tonight, and probably tomorrow, too.

The cast was flawless, the storytelling was expertly done, and the overall visual impact was a ten out of ten.

If you do get chance to see the show on its current tour, you really must. It's quite something.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Down Hall Hotel, Hertfordshire - Escaping Reality

This week we got the hotels booked for our next little adventure, which has set me off daydreaming about other weekend trips away I've had recently. 

It then hit me that I haven't yet shared on here about one of my favourite hotels from last year: Down Hall Hotel.

Set on the border of Hertfordshire and Essex, it's a beautiful country house hotel, in beautiful grounds.

The night away was meant to be an escape from reality, and from the moment we arrived, that's what it was.

On the approach to the hotel you feel like you're hidden away from anyone and anything, making it the perfect site to offer spa breaks. Although we weren't there for the spa on this trip, I'd definitely return for that version of a Down Hall stay.

The break fell in a period during late 2016 when I was really struggling. My depression and anxiety were extremely high, and I was struggling to cope with going through the motions of day-to-day life.

I was quiet, I was withdrawn, and it didn't help that I didn't even feel comfortable in the place I was living.

The night at Down Hall was a chance to escape, and it couldn't have been more perfect.

The room was huge and bright, with one of the most comfortable hotel beds I've ever stayed in.

The setting was so quiet - apart from a noisy half hour when our neighbours had visitors - and there was an overall feeling of comfort and luxury.

 Tucked away in that room, the outside world felt temporarily a long way away, and I could breathe.

It gave me a space to release some of my tension, unwind a little, and provide my brain with a soft pillow for a short while.

There was crying. Crying is actually one of the most effective releases for me when I'm at my most tense. But I was crying in a setting and in company where I knew every was ok.

I felt safe.

A room service dinner allowed me to carry on pretending there was no one else in the whole hotel, and breakfast the next morning was delicious, in a beautiful, calm dining room reflecting the rest of the experience.

Down Hall Hotel ranks up with one of my very favourites I've stayed in, and it provided me with a quiet sanctuary when I needed it most.

Next on my list is a return visit now I've made such vast improvements when it comes to my mental health, to fully immerse myself in and enjoy this brilliant hotel without the cloud of being unwell.

Ten out of ten, would highly recommend.

Down Hall, I'll be seeing you again.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre Live

This week, I went along to my first National Theatre Live broadcast, and the 'theatre via cinema' experience is definitely one I will be repeating.

On Thursday evening, National Theatre Live beamed out 'Hedda Gabler' to cinemas nationally, and I took up my seat full of anticipation.

I first came across Hedda Gabler while studying GCSE drama, and it's been on my 'need to see' list ever since. Widely agreed to host one of the very best female dramatic leads, the casting of Ruth Wilson in the role had me intrigued and confident it would be an impressive performance of Ibsen's classic.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the 'theatre at the cinema' concept, and I think I had assumed a camera would be set up as if you were a member of the audience in the theatre itself.

In fact, the National Theatre Live experience is a completely separate experience all of its own. Yes, there are moments where you see the whole stage and are aware of the live audience, but through most of the play it's more like watching a film, just one performed live. The camera angles change regularly, and pivotal moments are zoomed in on. The broadcast had clearly been plotted out very carefully, and every camera movement skillfully built up the picture of the whole performance.

Although you didn't get the intimacy of being IN the auditorium, you experienced a different kind of intimacy. The opportunity to be right up close to a character in their most intense and dramatic moments added a whole new layer of experience to the production.

In addition to this, there are two short films to enjoy as a cinema audience. Just before the show was one about how the National Theatre commissions and develops works, and just before the second half was a short film featuring the director and actors, sort of a 'the making of' featurette.

I can't not mention the fact there was one slight technical blip - in a pivotal moment, just as Hedda is asked 'Where is the manuscript?' the screen went green. For about 3 or 4 minutes. I've got to admit this really broke the spell, and we were a bit gutted to have missed a few minutes, as it's not like a normal film where you could have picked up from where it cut out! However, it wasn't enough to really disrupt my overall enjoyment of the evening.

And the show itself?


I was completely captivated.

The show has been brought up to date, set in a sort of loft apartment, presented in a way that demonstrated the fact all the issues from Ibsen's original play are still applicable today. Ruth Wilson, in the short film at the interval, described the sense that instead of being trapped in a man's world, as is the common interpretation of the play, the characters were trapped within their own minds. This angle played out very well in the production.

Ruth Wilson's Hedda was flawless. She handled the boredom, passion and the manipulation of this woman with apparent ease, and she's such a striking presence on the stage it was hard to look away from her. I also thought her voice work was outstanding; a deep, commanding voice that flitted easily between apathy, annoyance, petulance and anger. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she was alone on stage, where without words her every emotion was made clear.

Rafe Spall played a menacing Brack, who from his first moment on stage was an impressive figure. He embodied the 'playboy' role well, with a sinister edge, and his climactic scenes in the second half were truly intimidating and powerful. The Bloody Mary moment (I'll say no more in case you've got tickets booked to see the show) was particularly awful - in the best possible way.

I think my other favourite, if I were to give a top three, would by Mrs Elvstead, played by Sinead Matthews. When reading and studying the play I had always dismissed it as quite a boring part, as elements of her character just seem so simpering and pathetic. This is true to an extent, but Matthews fleshed out the character and we commented on the way home that it was easy to forget she was an actress at all; it was just Mrs Elvstead appearing before us. In body and voice she transformed into character fully, and really developed a part that could otherwise just pass an audience by as a storytelling vehicle.

Ivo Van Hove has really pulled it out of the bag with his direction of this production of Hedda Gabler. My expectations were high and they were surpassed, with brilliant staging, an accomplished cast, and a reframing of a story I thought I already knew.

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Recipe Post #9: Sausage and chickpea casserole

One meal that's gone down a treat in our house recently is this sausage casserole, adapted from a recipe on the Delicious Magazine website.

Packed with chickpeas and spinach, too, it's less like a traditional casserole and feels hearty but not too heavy.

The ingredients were:

  • olive oil (for the pan)
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 200ml chicken stock
  • 200g spinach
  • 6 pork sausages, cut into chunks
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 2 x 400g tins chickpeas, drained


Once you've got the list of ingredients, it's one of those great recipes where you can't really go wrong. Heat the oil and cook off the sausages, then set aside.

Throw the onions into the pan, and once they're on their way add the garlic, and you could throw in some herbs (the original recipe suggests thyme).

Add in the chopped tomatoes, chicken stock, browned sausages and chickpeas. Stir well, bring to a gentle simmer and cool for about 15 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Throw in the spinach towards the very end - a staple in pretty much anything I make - season well, and serve.


This went down very well in our house, and is definitely something I'll be making again.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Novotel, London Brentford

At the end of January I went for the most wonderful weekend away, staying in London with a day trip to Oxford in the middle.

Part of the reason the weekend was so good was the two nights spent in the Novotel London Brentford hotel, and that's what I'm sharing about today.

I've stayed in a Novotel once before, in Liverpool, which was brilliant, so I had pretty high expectations.

After parking under the building you come up into a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged lobby. The design work is quirky, with a large seating/work area, Macs for guests use, and it opened back into the bar and restaurant.

Check-in was quick and easy, with the staff doing everything on iPads, and off we headed to the sixth floor.

The room was spacious and looked and felt brand new. The bed was big and comfortable, with a warm light around the headboard, and there were floor-to-ceiling windows with a sofa placed in front of them.

There was a large desk area and so much storage space.

The standout feature was the glass wall between the shower and main bedroom, which could be frosted over at the touch of a button.

It gave the room a really unique twist and made the whole room feel bigger and more open.

Every detail, like the unusual doors to the bathroom and the beautiful wood of the doors and furniture, had been carefully thought through to emulate a feeling of luxury.

We ended up eating in the hotel restaurant both nights, after a day of travelling and then a long day trip to Oxford. 

With some restaurants, this would be a problem, but the menu was extensive and offered all kinds of cuisine... which were actually done well!

From steak to pasta to curry, we were impressed.

The staff, too, more than deserve a mention. They were so warm and friendly, and remembered you at breakfast if they'd seen you the night before. 

There was building work going on in the restaurant, which I feel in many circumstances could have been a hindrance as they were able to use a much smaller area, but it just had no impact at all on my enjoyment eating there. That's saying something for me, because I'm usually sensitive to any kind of disruption, noise or distraction!

Breakfast offered the usual hotel spread of cooked and continental, and this was also done well. I wouldn't call it my favourite hotel breakfast - that still sits with the Ramada - but it wasn't far off.

Overall, the Novotel offered the perfect base for the weekend. I felt incredibly comfortable there, loved the room, the food and the staff, and wouldn't hesitate to return there or to another hotel in the chain.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Hidden Figures

I finally went to see Hidden Figures this Wednesday, and it did not disappoint.

The trailer had me hooked, and then I heard glowing review after glowing review from so many people I knew.

Hidden Figures has got the perfect ingredients:

  • a brilliant cast
  • based on true events
  • an inspiring, inspirational story
  • an interesting context - two, in fact. 1960s America in terms of segregation, and 1960s America in terms of the space race
  • great characters
  • some real heartwarming moments.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who played pivotal roles at NASA during the space program's early beginnings, but whom few people have heard of. Mathematicians, at the beginning of the film the women are 'computers', tucked away in a separate building, and the film tells of their rise through the ranks to fulfill their true potential, despite obstacles that could have held them back.

Set against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement, the film perfectly presented the reality in which these women were living, and reminded of the entrenched segregation of a period still within the lifetime of many of those viewing this film. One of the most brilliant moments of the film, in my opinion, is when Kirsten Dunst's character tells Dorothy 'I don't hate y'all'. Dorothy turns, with a smile, and says 'I know you think you don't.' 

Which moves me on to the three women playing the titular 'hidden figures', Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), Katherine (Taraj P. Henson) and Mary (Janelle Monae). As a trio, they steal the film instantly, with the car scene and the later scenes at a playful garden picnic outside their church. As individuals, each had a strong story and character, and each was celebrated in their rightful way.  thought all three were cast perfectly, and thought each story was well told.

Kevin Costner was another standout in this film, as Al Harrison. His character was both intimidating and accomplished, yet he was arguably one of the first to open his eyes to the fact Katherine was needed and valuable to his team. I particularly enjoyed his dealing with the toilet situation, which I won't go into here in case anyone hasn't seen it yet...

Alongside all of this, I found the space race context fascinating, and particularly the role of maths and geometry. As my dad said on our way out, you could see the appeal of being a mathematician (we both studied English Literature at uni!) when it's applied in ways like that. Seeing inside the workings of early NASA and the space race was so interesting, and I do find the whole idea of space travel captivating. The idea of this being the world and the context that brought together these characters who in the world outside of NASA were not treated as equals really added to the whole feel of the film.

Overall, it was easily one of my favourite films I've seen for a long time. There were laugh out loud moments, tender moments, outrageous moments and yes, I shed a few tears.

I left the cinema feeling inspired, and full of the stories I had just seen play out in front of me. 

Definitely a film I'll be seeing again.

Monday, 27 February 2017

A Day Trip to the Big City

Now I've moved away from London, it has once more become a place for visits and day trips.

I'm no longer doing a daily Central Line commute into Oxford Circus, and I no longer pop to Westfield Stratford mutiple times per week.

Last month, my dad and I hopped on the train for my first visit back to the city since moving.

I had mixed feelings of excitement and nerves - my reasons for leaving were tangled up with anxiety, so of course when I did leave, I was at the height of that.

Fast forward a little and I'm in a different place, and the main nerves were attached to the train journey - another thing to add to the list of things I panic about (but am working through).

I had booked us tickets to Rent the musical at the St James Theatre for my dad's birthday months earlier, and the day finally rolled round.

My nerves in the week leading up to the train ride were high, but once we were on it and moving, deep breaths and podcasts kept me sane. It still amazes me how quick and easy it is to get into London from our local area and it was such a smooth ride.

When we got to Euston, the skies were blue and we decided to take the scenic route: walking.

When you're living in London it's so easy to just hop on and off the tube thinking nothing of it, but everywhere is so walkable and you appreciate the city in a new way.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of the reason we walked was I was too nervous to get on the tube, but that doesn't take away from the fact it was a lovely walk, and we had plenty of time!

The air was cold and crisp but the sun was bright; it was perfect weather to explore the city. We walked from Euston through to Oxord Street, down Regent Street and along to Trafalgar Square. From there, we went through Westminster, before finally emerging at our destination: Victoria.

Pizza Express was calling our name - it's been a firm favourite with our family for years. Re-energised by dough balls, garlic bread, pizza and chocolate fudge cake, we continued on to the theatre.

I've written up a full review of Rent already, which you can read here, but I can summarise it by saying it was easily one of the best things I've ever seen. Anyone who knows me knows that's a big statement to make!

After that, an Uber and a coffee saw us back onto the train, and off home we went.

Day out: success.

First trip back to London: success.

First long train ride in a period of time: success x 2.

I guess I'm starting to teach this anxiety it can't have full control of my life any more...

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Time to Talk Day, 2017

Today is #TimetoTalk day.

Talking about mental health is so, so important to me and has been one of the most important parts, I believe, in my journey.

I wanted to take today as an opportunity to share a potted history of what's been going on, where I'm at and why talking means everything.

In my final year of university, I knew I wasn't ok. Realistically, it had been going on longer than that, but at that point, I started to struggle to a point it was affecting my life.

Everything scared me.

Everything was too much.

That was a few years ago.

The last few years have been a rollercoaster, to say the least. I've been through really rocky patches, and really positive patches, but throughout that the shadow of anxiety has remained.

For most of this time, I've been able to function, to work, to see friends.

When people would hear I had anxiety they'd say 'You? But you've always been so confident!'

I was just really, really good at pretending I was ok.

I put on a mask every day and got through it. Some days I felt great, then there were periods where even getting into a car, stepping onto a train, or eating a meal weren't feasible options.

In June of last year, I crashed.

My body couldn't take any more pretending.

I had been working on the little surface issues but not on the deep fears at the root of them all. I had been putting little plasters over huge wounds.

I wasn't eating properly, sleeping properly, thinking properly or functioning properly, and realistically I hadn't been for a long time.

That wake up call in the summer has led to some big changes.

I finally found the right counsellor, and he helped me connect the dots I myself couldn't see.

He helped to equip me with new words to explain how I was feeling, and encouraged me to make progress.

In October, an incident happened to me outside work which sent everything backwards all over again.

Even walking down the street was suddenly terrifying.

And I began the slow climb back up again, continuing to work hard in my counselling sessions and beginning to do the real work. The work on the deep, dark fears that have been holding me back for so long.

And now?

I'm doing ok. Not great, yet, but I'm working on it.

I'm facing up to huge fears and huge challenges.

I'm going through a bit of a 'lifestyle overhaul'. New surroundings, new home, new hobbies. I'm surrounding myself with the people who fill me with hope and happiness and who support me relentlessly.

Why talk?

Talking is everything.

I'm incredibly open about what I've been going through because it's absolutely vital that these conversations happen.

A few years ago, I really knew nothing about anxiety. I didn't know that's what I was feeling, or how to get help.

I let it get to the point where I was struggling with generalised anxiety, health anxiety, social anxiety, depression, phobias... you could throw all sorts of labels at it. I wasn't eating properly. I wasn't sleeping.

It went way too far, and if me being open about it can help one single person look for help sooner, or realise what they're feeling isn't normal, that's all I could ever ask for.

I don't want to see anyone feel the way I felt during that 'crash' in June.

I don't want anyone to go through years or fighting with their own brain, being scared of everything, and thinking they're not good enough.

If you're struggling with your mental health, you have an illness and there is support out there.

You can learn to cope, and you can learn to thrive.

You can remember who you were before these unhealthy thoughts started taking over.

People are here for you.

THAT is why we need to talk.

These conversations shouldn't be taboo, and nobody should feel ashamed if they are finding things hard.

Start those conversations, and if someone you know is struggling, listen to them.

Just listen.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Hello, February 2017

What a start to the year it's been. 

My January has been intense. It was full of challenges, and accomplishments, and deep conversations, and appointments, and trying new things.

2017 is my year to work on healing properly, not just pushing on through the things I've been struggling with.

It's time to face these issues head on, and really get to the bottom of my anxiety and work on making lasting improvements.

January was a good start.

February will be better.

I'm now regularly going to pilates and doing yoga and mediation.

I'm cooking more, eating three meals a day and trying to work up to reintroducing some of the foods I had ruthlessly been cutting out.

I'm facing up to some things that have really been troubling me for a long, long time and coming up with ways to tackle them.

In the past month, I've tested myself and been reminding myself I can do more than I think.

I've had so much support from the people around me, and I know I can keep going to achieve more.

I'm excited about this year and everything that lies ahead.

I feel like I'm beginning to remember who Sophie is again, and rediscover the things I love doing, and discover things I hadn't yet tried.

A new month always brings a little renewed sense of motivation, so all I'm really trying to say here is that I'm carrying on.

I'm going to do more, try more and be myself more.

February, I'm ready for you.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Rent, St James Theatre

Rent has officially taken the top spot: best performance of a musical I have ever seen.

To put that into context, I averaged more than one a month in 2016 alone - I have seen an awful lot of shows in my 24 years!

The current touring production of Rent, which I saw during its London run at the St James Theatre, is truly outstanding.

I was slightly apprehensive before the show simply because I love the musical so, so much and have waited so many years to see it live. I was worried my expectations might be a little TOO high.

There was nothing at all to worry about.

We were on the front row, which for a show of this intensity was really quite incredible. We were almost under the feet of the actors, and right up close in their emotional moments. It takes a particular kind of skill, I think, to act in such an intimate setting. When your audience is inches away from you, you can't let things slip for a second.

It was incredible especially in the bigger group numbers to be watching the cast's movements be full of such freedom, while being constantly aware of the fact the audience were up so close, and therefore being careful not to kick anyone!

We were lucky enough to be right next to the hospital chairs in the emotional scenes of Act Two, meaning it felt almost like the characters were singing directly into our eyes.

I was also really impressed by the set, packed with so much detail and covering multiple levels. The ladders and various heights were used to brilliant effect - Out Tonight was a fantastic example of this - and I love it when the musicians are visible and a part of the performance.

The lighting worked really well to enhance the mood, every detail pulling together to create a slick final result.

I'm impressed I have waited this long to discuss the cast, because they were quite honestly phenomenal. I can hands down say they were my favourite overall cast, as an ensemble, in anything I've seen. It's such an ensemble show that really every character has to be spot on, or the whole performance is let down.

If I was pushed to choose my top four, it would (in this order) be Angel, Mimi, Tom and Roger. If I talk about everyone in depth I could go on forever, so I will focus on those and then mention the others!

Angel was performed by Layton Williams, who made me believe nobody could ever embody the role better than him. Angel is such a pivotal character, because there has to be that sassy, fun-loving side, but the audience has to completely fall in love with Angel and believe everyone else has, too. Without that, none of the emotion of Act Two has a leg to stand on. Williams handled the role with incredible confidence and maturity, and just took my breath away time and time again. 

Philippa Stefani, for me, was the perfect Mimi. It's an incredibly emotionally complex role, and another very physical one. Not only does she have numbers like Out Tonight, where she's hanging from the railings and embodying her sexual side, but she also has songs like Without You, bringing the audience to tears. Another physically challenging aspect of the role is the fact she's playing a drug addict who over the course of the show is getting more and more unwell. Stefani was mesmerising in her starring moments, but where she really pushed it over the edge into brilliance was in those 'in between' moments - the shaking, the sniffing, the frantic, darting eyes of someone who is struggling.

Roger is a key role with some of the very best songs in the show, and Ross Hunter's voice more than met the requirements. He combines that more raw, rocky edge with an incredibly pure higher range, and Your Eyes was a standout moment of the show. His chemistry with Stefani was very well played, and he was an ideal Roger. Tom Collins hasn't historically been one of my favourite characters, but Ryan O'Gorman's voice completely changed that for me. His gravelly, deep tone was quite honestly one of my favourite voices I've heard in a long time. He broke my heart in the reprise of I'll Cover You, and his relationship with Angel was so touching and believable that it really escalated the emotional later scenes.

I've chosen four characters, there, but I'm going to give quick mentions to others as the simple fact is the whole cast blew me away. Billy Cullum skillfully took on Mark's role as narrator - one which  always think is quite difficult as he's more of a commentator than a participant in many scenes, Javar La'Trail Parker offered a side to Benjamin I hadn't really appreciated before, and made me understand his side of the story, too.

Maureen (Lucie Jones) and Joanne (Shanay Holmes) made sure Take Me Or Leave Me was the showstopper it deserves to be, and I found their rocky relationship utterly believable. Additionally, the cast playing multiple smaller roles never let the acting slip, and you really could single out any one of them at a single moment and get the sense their character has a fully developed story.

I'm sure you can now see I could go on and on, but I will leave you with this:

The show broke my heart in the most wonderful, powerful fashion, and reminded me why I love music.

I didn't think I would get quite so emotional, knowing the story so well, but I sobbed my heart out! My dad definitely had a cry, too.

I feel emotional even thinking back over it to write this review, and that goes to show just what an impact it had. They're touring now, so please try and get tickets. You won't regret it for a second.

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