Cats in Coventry

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A scene from the Jellicle Ball at the production of CATS at The Albany Theatre, Coventry (photo used with permission)

Jellicle Cats come out tonight,  Jellicle Cats come one and all,

The Jellicle Moon is shining bright,  Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

(T.S. Eliot)

Last night I attended the Jellicle Ball! And what a Ball it was! You may have read a previous post of mine back in April, when I wrote a review for a performance of the musical Fame, which was produced by a local Youth Theatre Group here in Coventry called Wing-It Theatre. Over the past few years they have produced a number of musicals including Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, West Side Story, Hairspray, Rent, and The Little Mermaid. This week they have presented their summer production and it was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, a delightful show based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. To my mind this was their most ambitious and most successful show to date.

The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, and the night that they make what is known as the Jellicle choice, and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer, and then come back to a new life. One by one the cats tell their stories, and poor old Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, tries to join in but is shunned by the other cats, she is, however, able to have her say as she sings her song, Memory. Eventually she is the one chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer by the leader of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy, to be reborn to a new Jellicle life.

It is strange that a series of poems about cats should be turned into a piece of musical theatre, but it works, and it gives the performers ample opportunity to showcase many different styles of song and dance. Last night’s performance was superb, there simply is no other word for it. The youngest performer was eight years old, and the oldest in their early twenties; add to that the fact that the production team are all twenty somethings themselves, and we are talking about a very young company, but the wealth of talent meant that this production was worthy of a professional company.

Photo on 18 Aug 2017, 22_15_05The actor who played Grizabella brought the house to its feet with her rendition of the song Memory. I saw Elaine Paige play this role in the original London production back in the 1980s, but last night, Grizabella’s clarity and pathos were equal to that of a West End performer. Indeed the musicality, the diction, the choreography, and the simple but important mimicking of the feline gestures were all first class, and in one sense it is unfair to single out one character, because there were no weak performers in this production at all.

It was great fun to hear the stories of Bustopher Jones, the cat about town, Gus, the theatre cat, Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, Macavity, the mystery cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and all the others as they told us their stories, with their dancing, their antics and their gymnastics.Of course, none of this happens without guidance and the very talented and inspiring young production team which provides that, all have a background in musical theatre or choreography. My friends Callum and Hannah the producers and directors of Wing-It Theatre are professional actors, Andy the choreographer is a member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Dance Company, and Charlie has just finished a run in the West End. They can be justly proud this week that the nearly sixty strong cast pulled the proverbial cat out of the bag and gave us an experience that we will not forget!Photo on 19 Aug 2017, 15_06_40

 

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.

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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!

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!

Wing-It Theatre

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Does anyone else remember the television series Fame which aired during the 1980s? I used to watch it, and remember following the lives of the students and faculty at the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The series was based on the film of the same name released in 1980, and after the television series ended the whole thing was turned into a stage musical, and the show has been produced around the world in almost every major language.

An amateur production of the show was produced here in Coventry last week, and although it is not my favourite musical by any means, I do think it worthy of a mention here. It is worthy of a mention, not just because it was an excellent production, (more of that in a minute) but also because of the way it was produced. Coventry seems to be blessed with a great deal of talent in the sphere of musical theatre; there are a number of amateur companies which regularly put on great shows. One is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, known as YOG, which has a very good reputation, and a number of West End and television actors and dancers started their acting careers in that company. The other is the theatre group that I want to focus on here, the Wing-It Theatre. Founded back in 2009 when a group of drama students wanted to put on a final show together before beginning their professional careers, it has developed into a theatre project for youngsters who come together, after auditions, for ten days of intensive rehearsals, after which the show is produced in a local theatre. Obviously a lot of hard work and preparation goes on in readiness for that fortnight’s activity, but the fact that a musical production of such high standards can be achieved in that short time, says a lot for the commitment, dedication and talent not just of the creative team, but of all the youngsters who are aged  between about eight and twenty two. Over the past few years the company has produced Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, Hairspray, West Side Story, The Little Mermaid and Rent.

I saw this year’s production Fame, on its second night, the theatre was full and the cast, as well as the audience, were obviously enjoying every minute of the performance. The principals were a very strong team, with some powerful singers and superb dancers, in fact the whole youthful cast brought a wonderful vitality to a plot which (let’s face it) doesn’t have much depth. The staging was inventive, and the technical side of the production, sound and lighting, was slick, where every word could be heard and every movement picked out by a clever use of the vast array of lighting equipment. The choreographer and musical director brought out the best in the youngsters, but it is my friends Callum and Hannah, Executive Producer and Artistic Director respectively, who deserve high praise for helping about eighty youngsters discover and develop their talent, and in a short space of time produce something as good as they did last week. Some young people are criticised for their behaviour, their indifference, and their lack of purpose. This group, not only put on a show which entertained their audiences, but they also did their generation proud. Their enthusiasm, their confidence, their ability to work together as a team and their talent, are all things of which they can be very proud. As someone whose youthful days are over, and who ceased to tread the boards many years ago, I am delighted that theatre groups like these exist, and I look forward to the next production of Coventry’s Wing-It Theatre Company.

Julien

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You can almost feel the history of the place when you enter through the front door of 16 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. This is the home of the beautiful Brasserie Julien. The original tavern, or café, as we would know it today was opened on this site before even the French Revolution began, and has seen many a famous face through the centuries. The present building dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, and its beautiful Art Nouveau interior is quite stunning.

Friends had recommended that we ought to put Julien on our list of places to eat during our stay in Paris. We were meeting with French friends that we hadn’t seen for a few years, and wanted somewhere special. Julien came up to the mark, in its decor, service and cuisine.

We all chose from the Menu Julien, and two of us enjoyed Egg Florentine with fresh spinach in a Parmesan Sauce, whilst the others sampled the Sea Bass and Salmon Tartar in lime and ginger with a fresh herb salad. Our main courses included a Grilled Chateaubriand with a Béarnaise Sauce, Honey-lacquered pork spare ribs and pebble potatoes with rosemary, Filet of Sea Bass with oyster mushroom risotto and shellfish sauce, Whole roasted Sea Bream, sautéed potatoes with a soy and lime vinaigrette, and for the vegetarian with us, Wok stir-fried vegetables also with a soy and lime vinaigrette.

The desserts looked sumptuous, especially the Profiteroles with warm chocolate sauce, poured from a huge jug at a great height at the table, Crêpes Suzette flambéed with Grand Marnier, and for me – well I always opt for the Café Gourmand if I see it on a menu – a small espresso coffee with four little desserts, Crème Brûlée, Fondant au Chocolat, a tiny Muffin, and a small Fruit Crumble – absolutely delicious!

The price of the Menu Julien is 31€ for two courses and 37€ for three courses, which for the quality and service is quite reasonable. However, the wine is quite pricey, but needs must, and we needed two bottles of Château Tour Prignac from the Medoc between the five of us. But a very pleasant evening in beautiful surroundings, so well worth the price of the final bill. If you are ever in Paris, and want somewhere typically Parisian, then look no further than Julien just down the street from the Porte Saint-Denis in the tenth arrondissement. We were not disappointed, I hope you won’t be either!

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