Theatre review – The Winter’s Tale

Tragedy? Comedy? Tragicomedy? History play?

The Winter’s Tale – one of Shakespeare’s final works, first performed in 1610 – is all of these. And more.

We saw a fine production of this intriguing play last night, from the ever brilliant Guildford Shakespeare Company, brought to colourful life in the darkly atmospheric Holy Trinity Church.

Never having seen The Winter’s Tale before, piecing the intricacies of the plot together was a challenge at times, demanding full concentration. But the effort was fully rewarded.

All seems well at first, at the court of Leontes, King of Sicilia. He is surrounded by love, from his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, from his own Queen Hermione, his son, faithful retainer Camillo and other loyal courtiers.

But in the blink of a jealous eye, the King’s mood changes and tragedy ensues. Leontes is certain that Hermione is carrying his friend’s baby inside her, and orders the death of Polixenes. But Camillo helps the wronged King to escape.

Leontes initially orders the newly born child to be burned, but Antigonus rescues her and takes her to the safe haven of Bohemia, abandoning Perdita – what an apt name for such a desperate start in life – near the coast.

Back in Sicilia, Queen Hermione and her son Mamillius both die as a result of Leontes’ blind jealousy and rash actions.

For the next 16 years, Perdita is raised in Bohemia by a kindly shepherd, until she falls in love with the disguised Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes.

In the Shakespearian way, a happy ending is somehow conjured out of abject misery. Leontes is granted the good fortune to be reunited with his daughter and – bizarrely – Hermione, when a statue of her is brought back to life.

So is The Winter’s Tale also a morality play?

Perhaps.

But whatever the playwright ultimately intended, this production is a joyful journey through the pages of The Winter’s Tale. From the darkness of the initial misdeeds in Sicilia, to the colourful Bhangra-inspired exotic land of Bohemia, and the ultimately happy denouement back in Sicilia, the GSC use the church setting and their natural theatrical exuberance to tell the story in a wholly compelling way.

Leontes doesn’t deserve a happy ending, but who am I to argue with Master Shakespeare?

Thanks to the GSC for another brilliant performance…and here’s to the next 10 years, whether tragic, comic, historic, romantic, moral. Or wholly immoral.

 

Movie review – Brooklyn

In the post-war 1950s, Ireland was stagnating. Conversely, the US was booming. As a result, around 50,000 Irish emigrated to the Brave New World across the pond, with a quarter of them settling in New York City.

The movie Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Catholic coleen sent away by her loving older sister, to a ready-made job in an Italian department store and to a new life of opportunity.

Desperately homesick initially, she slowly embraces her new environment, helped by Catholic priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and her landlady Mrs Keogh (a scene-stealing Julie Walters).

And then she falls in love, with gentle Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), and nothing will ever be the same again.

But back in Wexford, her sister Rose dies suddenly and Eilis is pulled back to the old country, and to her lonely mother.

From the book by Colm Tóibín, and with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, this is a beautifully told story. Saiorse Ronan perfectly captures the fragile innocence of a young girl transplanted from a limiting, narrow-minded rural community to a thriving cityscape, bursting instead with energy and opportunity.

We see her mature into a confident, ambitious person, quietly comfortable in her own skin. But will she choose her new life, or stay loyal to her Irish roots?

The themes of love, family, home and opportunity often conflict with each other. Ms Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination for portraying those emotions in such a poignant, understated way, although I’m not as sure that the film deserves its own nomination, alongside more worthy competitors The Big Short, Spotlight and Room.

What’s in a name?

A few years ago, a good friend of my nephew Steve changed his name from plain old Christopher Young to a rather more uplifting Kit Fantastic.

Kit, his wife Beth and children Tilly & Teddy are obviously now The Fantastic Four. But there’s no truth in the rumour that they’ll christen the next child Fantastic Fantastic.

It turns out that Kit was ahead of his time. An article in the Times today reports that in 2015 a record 85,000 people in the UK changed their name by deed poll.

And why wouldn’t you, when you could wake up one day as Simon Smith, but go to bed as Bacon Double Cheeseburger.

Really.

“A name is the least important part of your personality”, Mr Smith told The Sunday People. “It’s given to you by someone else”.

The 33 year-old from Muswell Hill changed his name last year. “Bacon Double Cheeseburger was the first name I came up with”, he said. Presumably with a straight face.

The report doesn’t comment on whether he kept his job – as an investment banker? An Ocado delivery driver? – or what his wife – now Alice Mushroom Stilton Cheeseburger – thought. (I made that last bit up).

The report goes on to say how others have adopted equally bizarre names, such as Sarge Metalfatigue or Simply MyLove Poet.

In a remarkable tribute to Kit & Beth, another couple have renamed themselves Mr & Mrs Amazing.

Louise Bowers, of the UK Deed Poll Service, said: “One man changed his name to Happy Birthday. It gave us a chuckle, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice.”

The process takes 4 working days and costs just £33 for an adult, and £35 for a child.

So I’m going to scribble out a cheque for £66 right now and by the weekend, when we’re off to Courchevel, boring old Andrew & Gillian Morris will have morphed into Monsieur Deep Powder et Madame Corduroy Avalanche Beacon.

It’s Gill’s birthday on Saturday….she’ll love the surprise, right?

And I suppose we’ll just have to find another new name for the summer.

Movie review – Before Sunset

Who said romance is dead?

For Valentines Day, as trashily commercialised as it may be, I bought Gill a champagne and romantic movie experience. With me. And in the intimate small private screening room at the Courthouse Hotel in Soho, rather than at a popcorn-filled, trailer-laden Odeon multiplex.

And the movie?

A few years ago, we’d been the only people in a late night viewing of Before Midnight at a cinema in beautiful Bruges.  That was the third – and final – instalment of the well-regarded trilogy from Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

The three films span 18 years, both in terms of movie release dates and also the lives of the protagonists, Céline and Jesse.

This time we were seeing Before Sunset, the middle instalment. So we’re working our way backwards…..

Nine years earlier, in Before Sunrise, young American tourist Jesse and ideological French beauty Céline had bumped into each other on a train in Europe.

 

Through conversation as much as the obvious physical attraction, they connect. And spend a magical day and night in Vienna together.

But then they go their separate ways.

Before Sunset takes place in Paris, 9 years later. Jesse has written a successful book, and is talking to journalists in the historic Shakespeare & Company bookshop about how auto-biographical the love story is.

Céline appears, and for the next hour – again in real-time – they stroll through Paris, reminiscing about that romantic first meeting, and peeling away the layers of what’s happened in their lives since.

Céline explains why she didn’t show up for a planned second meeting in Vienna exactly 6 months later. Jesse admits he flew over from the US to honour the commitment.

As the camera follows them through the city, we eavesdrop on the intimacy of their witty, sensitive conversation and – like them – wonder what might have been. Jesse is now married and a father, Céline a passionate environmentalist and in a relationship of her own.

But is either of them really happy?

Beautifully shot, intelligently acted and smartly scripted, this is cinema at its finest. And most romantic.

Tottenham Hotspur – a long and painful love affair

I’ve supported Tottenham Hotspur Football Club for nigh on 60 years.

That’s a long time to remain faithful.

We lived in south east London in the 1960s, so if I’m honest my youthful commitment to the north London club probably had more to do with their recent success, than with geography.

Crystal Palace would have been the obvious choice, but they hadn’t won the famous Double – the gruelling old First Division championship and the still magical FA Cup – as Spurs had in 1960-61.

Besides, Palace were rubbish, only ascending to English football’s top table in 1969-70, and then only for a few seasons, before yo-yoing back down to the lower divisions.

No, I had pledged my young footballing soul to the Cockerel of White Hart Lane, and there was no turning back.

Unfortunately, the last 50 years for Spurs fans have been as frustrating as waiting for a politician to speak the unvarnished truth: they did once, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the next time….

Sure, we’ve had some sporadic success since those heady 1960s Glory Days:

  • League Cup wins in 1970-71 and 1972-73. But it was only the League Cup….
  • winning the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1972 at least gave me some temporary bragging rights in the school playground
  • back-to-back FA Cup wins in 1980-81 and 1981-82. Argentinian Ricky Villa won the first of those with a dazzling solo effort, before opting out of the 1982 final because of the ongoing Falklands War

A couple more isolated Cup wins followed, but it’s largely been a fallow harvest throughout my adult life. And completely barren as far as The Big One is concerned…..

Liverpool dominated the First Division league in the 1970s and 1980s, Manchester United the Premier League in the 1990s and 2000s, with recent success also for Chelsea, Manchester City, and – the hardest of all to bear – was north London rivals Arsenal winning the Premier League three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

And through all those long, lean years, Spurs’ highest league position was 2nd in 1962-63. A few 3rds flattered to deceive, but for long spells we were condemned to mid-table mediocrity, the Final Score teleprinter churning out details of yet another humbling defeat at 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon.

But could that all be about to change….?

In a wondrously unpredictable season, and with only 12 games left, Leicester City stand – unbelievably – on the summit and Spurs are 2nd, a mere 2 points further back, after a dramatic away win against Manchester City on Sunday. And we have a much better goal difference than all the other contenders.

Could it really happen? Could my beloved Tottenham finally win the Premier League?

I hope so.

It would be a good morality tale. Commitment, love and loyalty are not always easy bedfellows, but if you remain faithful you will reap rewards over the long-term. The journey may sometimes be hard, but you will learn much about yourself and about the object of your passion during the adventure.

But if Spurs blow it this time, that’s it. It’s over.

I’ll support Leicester next season. I went there once. And blue has always been my favourite colour.

 

Restaurant review – Drake’s, Ripley

Foodie neighbours and friends Ian & Jean have long eulogised about Drake’s in Ripley, but somehow we had never quite made it across the Georgian threshold ourselves.

Well, tick that one off the bucket list.

We’ve just enjoyed – with Ian & Jean – our first adventure at this stand-out Surrey temple of gastronomy. And, mange tout Rodney, was it worth the wait!

Remember the saccharine rom-com movie Jerry Maguire? Towards the end of this far-fetched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) finally expresses his love for Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in a long-winded speech.

Her simple reply? Shut up. You had me athello“.

The very first bite, one of three amuse bouches – a tiny morsel of tender beef inside a feather-light crunchy bread-crumbed parcel – sets the tone for everything still to come in a long, lazy lunch at Drake’s.

You had me atcroquette“.

And we were still in the bar at that stage, agonising over the many menu options: should we go for the simple, cheaper fixed-price seasonal lunch menu? The grazing menus….either the 6-course Journey * or the 8-course Discovery? With or without the matched wine flights? Or the a la carte multiple-choice option?

We all decided on the Journey*. Well, it was bucket-list time….

We put ourselves in the expert hands of the sommelier to recommend complementary red and white wines. He delivered. And how appropriate – but surprising – that he served up a subtle, spectacular Pinot Noir from Tasmania, where we were a year ago to the day.

I can’t find words that will do justice to the food that we savoured over the next few hours.

The Journey* was quite simply a culinary trek through perfectly balanced ingredients, beautifully married tastes & textures, and impeccably judged quantities and pacing. All transported from the kitchen by charming staff, professional but friendly, helpful but unobtrusive.

My own highlights?

  • the will o’ the wisp texture of the parsnip crackling, accompanying slow cooked pork cheek, scallop and gribiche sauce
  • the complete dish of guinea fowl, coq au vin, dandelion, wet polenta, king oyster mushrooms and pancetta
  • cinnamon, hibiscus ice and Pedro Ximenez

But that’s really unfair to the rest of the menu, like singling out Geoff Hurst from his 1966 World-Cup winning team-mates.

No wonder Steve Drake has been awarded a Michelin star for the 13th consecutive year, and has recently been voted number 35 in the Sunday Times Top 100 UK restaurant list for 2015/16.

It took us a few years to get here, and it might be another few years before our bank balance has recovered – but thanks, Ian & Jean. We’ve finally been Draked. And we loved it.

JOURNEY

Available for dinner Tuesday and lunch/dinner Wednesday – Saturday

Designed to be taken by the whole table

Leek, Haddock, Quail’s Egg

Slow Cooked Pork Cheek, Scallop, Parsnip Crackling, Gribiche Sauce
Brill, Romanesco, Vanilla and Parsley Root, Grain Mustard, Baby Spinach

Guinea Fowl, ‘Coq au Vin’, Dandelion, Wet Polenta, King Oyster Mushrooms and Pancetta

Cinnamon, Hibiscus Ice, Pedro Ximenez

Roast Plum, Hazelnut Cake, Caraway Syrup, Mint Jelly

A review of The Croydon Park Hotel

Below is a commissioned review of The Croydon Park Hotel I have just had published on Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

(Croydon may not be the most glamorous travel destination, granted…..but they’re sending me to Greece next, so watch this space for a review of Thessaloniki and northern Greece, in April).

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Let’s be honest, Croydon might not be the first place you think of staying in. But perhaps I can make you reconsider those preconceptions.

Croydon Park HotelI’ve just spent a night as a guest of the 4* Croydon Park Hotel, located perfectly for easy access by train to central London (less than 20 minutes to Victoria or London Bridge), and to Gatwick Airport (journey time 15-20 minutes, trains every 15 minutes during peak times).

The hotel is very welcoming, and all the staff members exude a friendly, professional image from the moment you arrive.

Our 4th floor room – recently refurbished in calming, neutral colours – was spacious and comfortable, with a sofa and table as well as a King-sized bed, flat-screen TV and every other amenity expected these days. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel.

Croydon Park Hotel

 

 

 

Before dinner, work up  an appetite in the gym  or in the 35-foot long  indoor pool, or heat up  in the jacuzzi or sauna.  The H2O Leisure Club is  free to hotel guests, and also has external local members.

Head to Whistlers Bar for a drink in a warm atmosphere, either before dinner in Oscars Brasserie or for a lighter supper while you watch a sports game on the huge screens.

But the main culinary event happens every day and evening at Oscars: feast on an all-you-can-eat 5 course gourmet buffet, for a fixed price of £22.50 pp (£27.50 with a ½ bottle of decent wine).

Croydon Park HotelStart with fresh soup, or a seafood medley of salmon, lobster, prawns and mussels, together with a wide option of salads. Move on to the freshly carved meat du jour, with chicken, fish and other meats already lined up on the groaning table, next to vegetables, rice, sauces and more trimmings than you’d see at a curtain exhibition. If you’re still going, choose one of the many sweets – the vanilla cheesecake is highly recommended – before filling up completely with cheeses, tea and coffee.

The breakfast buffet is no less impressive, whether you’re going Continental or traditional full English. But save some space for croissants and Danish pastries with your fresh coffee.

Croydon Park Hotel

If you’re staying local, visit the Horniman Museum & Gardens, like I did as a 6 year-old on school visits a lifetime ago. Sports fans will want to head to Twickenham Stadium for rugby, Crystal Palace for football andWimbledon for the annual tennis pilgrimage. The brilliant Tramlink is a painless 45 minutes from Croydon to Wimbledon.

Back in Croydon town centre, I have vivid memories of being dragged along to the newly opened Whitgift shopping centre in the late 1960s. It’s still there, but over the next few years a recently confirmedinvestment of £1bn will transform it into a vast Westfield retail centre, together with homes, offices, and leisure activities that will regenerate Croydon as the best place to live, shop and work in south London.

The Croydon Park Hotel is well positioned now, as a cost effective alternative to high priced London hotels just 20 minutes away, and it will only continue to benefit from the transformation of Croydon itself in the very near future.

Spin Cycle

No, not the washing.

I’m talking about a full-on cycling session in a funky indoor studio at a gym, such intense exercise that blood, sweat and tears will soak clean through your lycra-clad body.

Spinning has been around a while, but I’ve only got into it recently. I go to the Charterhouse Club in leafy Godalming, Surrey. There’s a certain irony in the beauty of nature outside the studio walls, and the torture that’s wreaked on your body inside.

Each session is 50-55 minutes in total, including the essential warm-up and cool-down elements.

Bring a large bottle of water, a towel – you WILL sweat profusely -and more energy than a hormonal teenager at a school prom.

The bike is a Keiser. The name is appropriately redolent of power and control.

Adjust the height and pitch of the saddle, the handlebar – vertically and laterally – and settle your feet into the metal pedals. And start spinning those wheels, dude….

The instructor will rule your life for the duration of the session. But at least you know it will be a well-trained, measured death.

Dim the lights. Turn on the fans. Crank up the music. Warm up the legs. Stretch the key muscles. And begin….

That monitor tells you everything you need to know for the next 45 minutes….

  • RPM….how quickly are you spinning those wheels? 70-100 is comfortable, anything above 100 could hurt. But it all depends on…
  • Gear = resistance. The flat road gear is likely to be 10-12, and a hill climb could start at 14-16, maxing out at 24. I think it’s 24, but I’ve never been above 22. And that really hurt
  • the clock. Do not look at how many minutes have elapsed. Just get in the Spin Zone and enjoy the ride. Ha!
  • watts & calories counter. Watts = power being expended. Apparently the wattage is more important than calorie consumption. All I know is that a wattage of 200+ is invariably really, really hurting, that a 450 calorie session is painful, and that 500 calories is a near-death experience

What I love about a spin class – in a masochistic way – is the way the instructor puts together the session: they will drive you onward – beyond what you think you can achieve – using a devious combination of RPM and resistance, on long sprints, up gruelling mountains and – using the all-important principle of “intervals” – every possible combination in between.

And the music – their personalised playlist – is chosen to sync perfectly with the pace and resistance of each part of the session. I’m not sure I could see a class through to the finishing line, without that symbiotic relationship between the pulsing power of the music and the rapidly sapping energy of mind and body.

At the end is a sense of simultaneous physical weakness and mental strength. And some very sweaty clothes.

Cool down those fatigued muscles. Stretch. Dry the sweat off your bike for the next victims.

Breathe.

Shower.

Rinse and repeat.

Movie review – Spotlight

Why do so many people cling to religion, like a Titanic passenger to an over-crowded lifeboat? Whether it’s for personal strength, gentle spiritual guidance – or just a habit – I’m afraid I really don’t get it.

Whether I believe in God, or not, is another ball-game, but time and time again, His earthly representatives let Him down, and betray the very people they exist to help.

The institution of the church – in its broader form, across religions – fails so frequently that its message has long been lost, for me and for many others, I fear.

Spotlight is the latest film to shine a dazzlingly bright light on the earthly failings of a disconcerting number of religious representatives. And I’m afraid it paints a terrible picture of the Catholic Church yet again, as so many before. PhilomenaDeliver Us From Evil, or The Boys of St. Vincent are just a few from a depressingly long list, all rooted in fact.

Spotlight is the name given to the Boston Globe’s specialist unit of investigative reporters. They choose stories to dissect in forensic detail, over a protracted period, before potential publication.

In 2001, encouraged by the newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the team pursue the story, initiated a few years earlier by another Globe journalist, of sexual abuse by a local Catholic priest against a child.

But what makes the story of real interest for the editor and for the Spotlight team is the potential cover up of the abuse, led by Boston’s powerful Cardinal Law (Len Cariou).

What follows is a real insight into the journalistic world, as the team dig deeper into the story, interviewing victims, priests, lawyers, police and anyone connected to the expanding web of connected horror.

They discover a systematic cover-up of child abuse by up to 90 Catholic priests in Boston alone over the previous 20-30 years. But what appals them – and us – is the devious collusion of the city’s authorities – the Archdiocese, lawyers, police – that allows confidential settlements to be made, and for the perpetrators to be moved to another parish, where they repeat the abuse.

The movie is told almost as a docudrama,  focusing as much on the mundane journalistic and editorial challenges as the underlying horror. It’s perhaps an unusual role for both Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Spotlight team, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the most passionate and driven member of Spotlight. But they convince, with Mark Ruffalo earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll complete the conscientious Spotlight team.

Stanley Tucci deserves a special nod. He plays Mitchell Garabedian, an Armenian “outsider” living in Boston, a lawyer who has been quietly supporting past and present abuse victims, long before the Boston Globe scoop breaks.

The movie is a tribute to what the Spotlight team achieved through their painstaking work, so thorough and shocking that it led to similar stories of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the Catholic church in dozens of other cities throughout the world.

And in a painful twist, Robby realises he had all the pieces of the jigsaw in the Globe’s possession 5 years earlier, and let the story slip, allowing even more innocent young victims to be abused.

Religion, eh….who needs it?