Miss Saigon in Leicester

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(Leicester’s very modern theatre, The Curve, is currently playing host to Miss Saigon)

The very first time that I saw Miss Saigon, the musical by Boubil and Schönberg, (who are also the writers of Les Misérables), I was absolutely bowled over. It was back in 1989, and we went to London to see it just a week or two after it opened. My memories of that day were of the helicopter – everyone who has seen it cannot fail to remember the helicopter – but perhaps more importantly the wonderful music and very emotive story were imprinted on my mind. I remember also a group of Americans who were in the theatre for the first act, but did not reappear for the second act. Apparently, the memories of the Vietnam War, in which this musical is set, were too raw, understandably they were not yet able to face a re-enactment of such horrifying events from their recent past. America found it difficult to put the war behind it, it worried for its veterans, the peace movement and the draft dodgers were subjects still on their minds fourteen years after the war ended. Twenty eight years on from its opening in London, and the events portrayed on the stage still send a shudder down the spine, and bring more than tear to the eye, but it is a story that needs to be told.

Since that first time that I saw the show until last Saturday when I saw it again, I think I have seen the show about eight times, and I have never failed to be moved. It tells the story of the complicated relationship between an American Marine, Chris, and a Vietnamese girl, Kim, who fall in love in the last days before the fall of Saigon to the Communists. Chris, along with all Americans, has to leave, but is unable to take Kim with him. Some years later through a charity set up to look after Vietnamese orphans, Chris and his new wife discover that Chris is the father of Kim’s child. The ending is tragic, and if you know the story of Madame Butterfly, then I need not explain the ending, indeed I don’t want to spoil it if you have never seen the show.

Saturday evening’s performance was the opening night of the U.K. tour in Leicester, and the show has lost none of its power, its emotion or its raunchiness. The central character of The Engineer was brilliantly portrayed by Red Conception, and Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim, were superb as the lovers Chris and Kim. The staging is very cleverly done, it is slick, fast moving, colourful and very realistic. That helicopter that everyone talks about, you actually feel it passing above you through the auditorium, and then you see it landing on stage as the last of the Americans and the Ambassador board it, leaving behind those who were hopeful of escape to freedom, escape from the Viet Cong.

There are some lovely ballads in the musical score, as well as some rousing military music, but my favourite song has to the song about the orphaned Vietnamese children, Bui Doi, which translates as The Dust of Life, those ever present red haired, blond and freckled children of Vietnamese mothers, usually prostitutes, and American fathers. These children are a source of shame and guilt for Americans, but a central theme of Miss Saigon.

After its run in Leicester, the shows moves around the U.K. and Ireland, playing in Birmingham,  Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol and Plymouth. It really is unmissable.

Photo on 5 Jul 2017, 16_21_58

Kilworth House Hotel and Open Air Theatre

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I have just celebrated a rather special birthday, and one of my treats was a overnight theatre package at the Kilworth House Hotel and Open Air Theatre near Lutterworth in Leicestershire. The number which appeared on many of my birthday cards is not important, let’s just say that under British law, I have reached that age where you have to renew your driving licence! It was a lovely experience and I feel sure that many of my readers would love to hear what it was like.

From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, everything was superb. The package included an overnight stay in this glorious Grade ll listed Italianate country house, which was built as a family home towards the end of the nineteenth century for John Entwistle, the High Sheriff of Leicestershire. The present owners bought it and converted it into the beautiful hotel it is today in 1999. The original Orangery has been converted into a restaurant, where we had dinner last night, and breakfast this morning. But the main reason for going was to visit the wonderful Open Air Theatre which has been built in the grounds, and which for the last ten years has hosted top class musicals, with West End actors and musicians. The show currently playing is Kiss Me Kate, a musical I first saw back in 1991 in Birmingham, and then in the West End in 2002.

Let me tell you about the hotel and restaurant first. Everything had been carefully thought about, nothing was forgotten. The garden room which we were allocated was spacious, beautifully furnished and extremely comfortable; and the restaurant in the huge, light and airy south facing Orangery which overlooked the rolling countryside of South Leicestershire was well staffed and very efficiently run. It had to be, dinner for those going to the theatre was served from five o’clock, and the eighty odd people in the restaurant were all served unhurriedly with plenty of time to spare before being transported through the grounds to the “theatre in the woods”.

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For dinner, I chose Butternut Squash Soup as my starter, and my friend had Mackerel pâté, rye bread, pickled fennel and horseradish cream. Our main courses were Pork schnitzel, with parsley potatoes, cranberry sauce and lemon for my friend, while I had Escalope of salmon, crushed potatoes, green beans and sauce vierge. Both were accompanied with seasonal vegetables. We both decided on the same dessert which was a Lemon Delice, toasted meringue and raspberries. A good sized glass of Spanish Tempranillo, and a coffee to finish, and we were all set for what turned out to be quite a chilly night in the theatre!

Remember that this is June! Last week, the United Kingdom was sweltering in a heatwave with temperatures in the low 30s. Last night, most of the audience had thick coats, wooly hats, some even had gloves, and the staff were handing out blankets! It was quite ironic when the second half of the show, as it does, opened with the number Too Darn Hot! that the laughter that greeted that song showed quite clearly that the audience did not agree! At least it wasn’t raining!

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Kiss Me Kate is a musical by Cole Porter, based on Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. It is highly amusing and contains many well known songs, Another Op’nin’, Another Show, Wunderbar, So in Love, I Hate Men, Too Darn Hot, Always True to You in my Fashion, and the hilarious number sung by the two gangsters, Brush Up Your Shakespeare. The leading actors, Caroline Sheen who played Katherine, and Matthew McKenna who played Petruchio, have both starred in West End musicals, and were superb in carrying the show with such pace. The whole company was truly magnificent, the energy, enthusiasm and talent worthy of any London production. This is the first of the two major productions at Kilworth this summer. Kiss Me Kate closes on 16th July after a six week run, and then the Irving Berlin dance musical Top Hat opens in August for a four week run.

Photo on 29 Jun 2017, 19_02_21

A theatre in the woods in rural Leicestershire is not where you expect to see top class musicals, but if you get the chance to see one of the productions, take it, you will not be disappointed. Kilworth presents two musicals and other one night shows throughout the summer. If you are too late to book for this year, bear it in mind for next.

The hotel, the restaurant, and the theatre are all little gems here in the Midlands. For me it was a lovely birthday treat, and I shall look forward with eager anticipation to my next visit.

 

Kinky Boots

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A Northampton shoe factory is the unlikely setting for the musical Kinky Boots currently playing at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End. It is an award winning show with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, and book by Harvey Fierstein. It is loosely based on real life events in a shoe factory in Northampton, and takes us on a very moving journey of self discovery.

Charlie Price is finding it difficult to live up to his father’s expectations and carry on the family shoe business of Price & Son. The future of the factory is in the balance, staff are threatened with being laid off, when help arrives in the unlikely person of Lola, a fabulous drag artist who is in need of some sturdy high heeled boots. Like Charlie, Lola, whose real name is Simon, doesn’t live up to his/her father’s expectations either, but through their cooperation and friendship, which goes through difficult times, the future of the factory is assured, and from making sturdy shoes for men, it begins to make thigh length high heeled boots with a steel support in the heel suitable for people like Lola.

Yes, it’s an unlikely setting, and an unlikely story, but the message of the show is not so unlikely. The story celebrates equality, acceptance and the right to express oneself as one wants, and as the story develops we see what happens when people unlock their potential and accept themselves as they are. As the storyline tells us “Be who you want, do what you want, and treat others with the same respect that you would want to be treated.”

The show has some wonderful songs, with both humour and pathos, and my favourite has to be Not my father’s son, delivered beautifully by Lola and Charlie as they compare their lives up to this point. David Hunter as Charlie Price and Matt Henry as Lola give powerful performances, and are ably assisted by a very talented cast, and the costumes including the boots, are amazing! At the end of the show, of the two leading characters, it is Lola who comes through as the stronger character, and saves the day and the business.

We saw the show at the end of May. It had been on our list of shows to see, for some time, partly because we know the choreographer who comes from Coventry. We wished we hadn’t put it off for so long, it was a real fun show, but one that was able to put across a very serious and important message. The cast well deserved their standing ovation at the end of the final number. A new cast has recently been announced and the show will run for some time to come, so there is plenty of time to see it, it’s worth it, if for no other reason, just to see the boots, not only are they amazing, but they’re Kinky Boots!

Cheese #1 Brillat-Savarin

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A year or so ago, our French neighbours invited us to dinner. I don’t remember everything that we had to eat, but I do remember it being un repas simple entre amis (a simple meal among friends). However, I cannot forget the cheese that they served us, in French style of course, between the main course and the dessert. It was a cheese we had not tasted before, or in fact, even heard of. This cheese was Brillat-Savarin.

Suzanne, our neighbour, served the cheese quite simply with a crusty baguette, but she told us that it was also very good served with just fresh strawberries. This is because it is a very creamy cheese, (you’ve heard of double cream, well this cheese is made from triple cream!) almost sweet, but with a faintly sour, but not unpleasant, after taste. We have tried this back home in the U.K. and indeed it does work, the creamy sweet texture of the cheese compliments the fresh fruit beautifully.

Brillat-Savarin was first created at the end of the nineteenth century in Normandy, (and then later in Burgundy) and was initially called Excelsior and Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight), but in the 1930s, the great French cheesemonger Henri Androuët, whose great role in life was to introduce Parisians to the rich variety of their native cheeses which he gathered from all over the country to sell in his Paris shop, renamed the cheese in honour of the eighteenth century gourmet and political figure, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

It is obviously quite easy to find this cheese in fromageries and supermarkets in France, but we wanted to to able to enjoy this cheese back in the U.K. too. Specialist cheese shops such as Paxton & Whitfield in London, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath stock it, but much to our delight we found it also in the food halls of M&S. I’m told that it is also available from Waitrose.

Last night we had friends here for dinner, and we served this cheese along with a hard cheese from the Basque region of France. The last word must go to our guest who, tasting the cheese for the first time, said that it was just like having double cream on bread! Try it for yourself, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Downpour to Heatwave!

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(This is the view of Canet that we normally see on our approach to the airport in Perpignan – but not on this occasion! Thick rain clouds meant we saw nothing at all)

To say it was raining is an understatement! As we came into land on our Ryanair flight from Birmingham, the skies over Perpignan were full of thick dark clouds. It wasn’t just raining, it was pelting down, you could hear it on the fuselage of the plane, you could see it pouring down the windows in rivulets. When the steward opened the front door of the plane to secure the steps he was absolutely soaked, despite wearing his raincoat, and the captain announced that no one was getting off in the next few minutes. Despite all that, thankfully the landing was pretty smooth, although there was one almighty flash of lightening as we touched down. What a welcome to the south of France!

We’ve been here a week now, and it has got a lot better, thankfully! In fact by the time we reached our house in Canet half an hour later, the sun was beginning to peep through the clouds, and the second downpour that we had experienced on the road from the airport had ceased. By the evening, when we went out to a local restaurant, everywhere was dry. Dinner on this first night was to be in a restaurant we have known well for the past twenty-four years. Back in 1993 when we first came to Canet, we stayed at a place called Malibu Village, a holiday resort made up of Timeshare apartments, rentals and owner-occupiers. The restaurant in those days was very good, but has gone through difficult times of late. We had heard that it is now very much on the up, and we were not disappointed. Carefully prepared and beautifully presented dishes were put in front of us by friendly and attentive staff. We both started with Escalivade, a Catalan dish of roasted vegetables, served here with asparagus and a Parmesan Crisp, which we followed with Gambas for my partner and Sea Bass for me.

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(Escalivade with a Parmesan Crisp served with Black Olive dressing on a glass plate)

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The dessert, one of my favourites, was Tartelette Citron Meringuée.  A good helping of really local red wine ensured that we passed a very pleasant evening.

Sunday was spent working in the garden, which during our absence over the previous two and a half weeks back in the U.K. had burst into colour. There was lots to do, cutting back the creepers, and thinning out the vine, to ensure a good crop of black Muscat eating-grapes in late August and early September. That done we made our way to Perpignan where we were going to attend the evening Mass of Pentecost at the Cathedral.

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(The Sanctuary of the Cathedral in Perpignan prepared for the Pentecost Sung Mass)

As the weather gradually got better during the week, much of our time was spent organising the outdoor furniture and getting the swimming pool (la piscine) back into operation. Our regular pisciniste arrived on Monday and did the major cleaning work after removing the winter cover, cleaned the filter, checked the ph levels, and reset the timers and the heater. All done within an hour, and all we had to do was wait until the temperature was at the level we like it. Within two days the water was crystal clear again, without the use of chemicals. In the pool house there is a UV lamp over which the water constantly passes, removing any impurities and thereby doing away with that awful smell of chlorine! Thanks to the summer cover, which is like thick bubble wrap, and the efficient heater, the water temperature is now 28° Celsius, or for those who work in Fahrenheit, a very pleasant 82°. With the aid of the sun, (and this weekend we are experiencing a bit of a heatwave down here) it will soon be over 30° or a mere 86°. A bit like a luke warm bath!

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Yesterday we marked a personal event, and took ourselves off to Saint-Cyprien, the next town south along the coast, to celebrate in style at a restaurant that had been recommended to us by friends. Saint-Cyprien is one of the largest pleasure boat ports along this coast and also has a fishing harbour, so the fish is always very fresh in the restaurants there. Before our meal we enjoyed a Mojito in a bar on the edge of the port called Le Bateau Ivre, (The Drunken Boat), and since I was driving, mine was non-alcoholic, I hasten to add. It’s known in French as a Mojito Virgin!

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At the restaurant, L’Hidalgo, once again we were not disappointed. Our starter was a rather large platter of Tapas. Being so close to the Spanish border, tapas is very common in these parts and is often found on menus. Ours consisted of a selection of cold meats, Manchego cheese, white anchovies, razor shells, squid, crispy chicken and a fried fishy doughnut, called acras de Morue. We were able to take our time over all this with a good bottle of red wine from Collioure, a beautiful fishing port and wine producing area two more town further south along the coast towards Spain.

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(Platter of tapas, with the inevitable, but delicious bowl of Aioli in the foreground)

Then came our main courses: my partner had chosen to have Parillade de Poissons, a mixed grill of fish and seafood which he very gallantly made his way through!  Mine was a  Cocotte d’Agneau façon tajine, a slow cooked North African Lamb Tagine, which was not too spicy, but very flavoursome. I did leave room for another of my favourite desserts which I have mentioned in a previous blog, Un Café Gourmand, a selection of four tiny desserts, including a Crème Catalan, and another tiny Tarte au Citron Meringuée, with an espresso coffee. Sitting facing the harbour, watching the moon rise, with not a breath of wind, was a lovely end to the evening.

We have really kind neighbours here. Four days ago, the neighbour on one side brought us a huge bag of cherries, which her cousin had picked up near Vinça, about twenty-five miles away. They were beautiful and we have enjoyed some every day since. Then two days ago, the neighbour on the other side brought us a bowl of apricots which she had just picked from the tree in her garden. They were delicious. Not many food miles involved there! Thank you Nicole and Suzanne!

And so our first week here in Canet-en-Roussillon has come to an end, but not without a little sadness. Just above the covered terrace outside the kitchen there is a decorative water spout, which serves no purpose, it’s just there to add symmetry to the look of the terrace,  but over the past few years it has become home to nesting birds who have successfully reared their chicks there, and we’ve watched them coming and going to bring food, and eventually see the young fly the nest. This year, sadly things have been different; first on Wednesday, then yesterday, and now this morning, we have found three chicks on the floor below. Did they fall, or were they pushed? We shall never know, and we cannot interfere, nature has to take its course. But it is still very sad to witness, and we are wondering if there are any chicks still in the nest?

What started with a downpour has ended with a heatwave, but better that way round as today the French are voting again. Just over a month ago they held Les Présidentielles when Emmanuel Macron was elected President, and today is the first round of Les Législatives, when members of parliament are elected. Personally, I’ve had enough of elections, but that is another story, and not one that I intend to get into here!

Thursday Thanks #6

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At the end of this week I shall be going back to France, a country whose language, culture, food, wine and climate I love. As a welcoming liberal modern democracy, it is a far cry from the country it was when my father made that journey seventy-seven years ago. He went along with hundreds of thousands of others as part of the British Expeditionary Force to help defend France. At that time Nazi Germany had invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and Panzer divisions were attacking France through the Ardennes, driving the British troops back towards the northern coast around Dunkirk. There they were trapped with no means of escape until Churchill and his war cabinet drew up a plan, which was codenamed Operation Dynamo, to evacuate all the allied soldiers  from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk at the end of May 1940. Churchill, in a speech to the British Parliament had described the events in France as “a colossal military disaster” and that “the whole root and core and brain of the British army had been stranded in Dunkirk” and were about to perish there. What happened there seventy-seven years ago, he also later described as “a miracle of deliverance”.

Because between 26th May and 4th June 1940, thousands of soldiers were rescued by a hastily assembled  flotilla of over eight hundred boats of varying shapes and sizes, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, and merchant marine sent from the south coast of England. On the first day of the evacuation only seven and a half thousand were rescued; but by the end of the evacuation three hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and twenty-six soldiers had been saved from certain death or capture. As it was, over sixty-eight thousand soldiers lost their lives, and almost all of the tanks, vehicles and other equipment were abandoned  in northern France.

I am proud to say my father was there and certainly saved in that evacuation. He never spoke to me of those events in Dunkirk or of eventually being rescued; I am sure that something like that left deep scars on the psyche of a twenty-two year old. And so in this Thursday Thanks, I want to thank my father (who died sixteen years ago in 2001) and pay tribute to all those others who have allowed my generation to have the freedom that we enjoy today, and in particular for me, being able to make those regular journeys to France which I so enjoy.

Photo on 28 May 2017, 16_16_18

My father is pictured just to the left of the striped post in the centre of the photograph, on his return to England after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

A little bit of history!

It’s hard to believe, but we have lived in this house for nearly twenty years! Situated on the east side of the city centre, it’s not like  the districts to the west of the city, which have some lovely old houses, many of them quite grand. But it does have its good points. A friend once described this house and others in this road as faded Edwardian splendour. The Edwardian is not quite true as the house was built in 1913, making it just over one hundred years old, and strictly speaking it was built in the reign of King George V. As for the faded splendour, well that makes it sound a bit like Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, and I assure you it is not!

But it is a good place to live. The local Residents’ Association works hard to improve the quality of life for all of us in this corner of the city which includes Gosford Park, Stoke Green and Stoke Park.

It’s a place full of history too. Just a couple of hundred metres from this house is Gosford Green! And it was there in the fourteenth century that a famous incident took place which involved single combat between the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Hereford. I quote from the website of our Residents’ Association: The dispute arose after one of the dukes was said to have uttered treasonable remarks against King Richard ll. Large numbers, including up to 10,000 soldiers, gathered to witness the event on Gosford Green, but at the last moment the king halted the duel and both dukes were banished.

The Duke of Hereford, otherwise known as Henry Bolingbroke, (remembered in a local road name) returned, took Richard prisoner and forced him to abdicate. The king was subsequently killed and Bolingbroke took over the monarchy as King Henry lV. This treacherous act led to the Wars of the Roses and during this period Parliament sat in Coventry.

Henry lV‘s son, Henry V, in later years won the Battle of Agincourt. So the duel that nearly happened at Gosford Green in Coventry proved to have a significant part to play in English history.

We can see Gosford Green from our house, and it is fascinating to imagine those thousands of soldiers gathered where this house now stands, and the importance to the history of the Succession of the English Monarchy and British history in general that this little corner of Coventry has played.

The photographs shared from the website of Gosford Park Residents’ Association show something of the very attractive nature of the place that I am pleased to call home, and are reproduced here with permission. Just click on “Pictures” below, and you will be taken to the GPRA website.

Source: Pictures