I couldn’t stomach the thought of sitting around Oxford doing nothing but wait for an email that I no longer think is going to come for the third day in a row, so I decided to leave. Originally I was hoping to go to Lanhydrock in Cornwall despite the 4 hour train rides it would have taken to get there, but the price was a bit, shall we say, prohibitive? In fact it seemed like every place I thought I might travel to was crazy expensive. Now I am definitely not one to scrimp on travel expenses (remember me traipsing off to Zurich with no warning?) but if I’m going to spend the money to go to Cornwall or York, I should probably do it as a weekend trip and make it really worth my while. Which is how, at 2 am, I came to the decision to go into London for the day.
Yet it would not just be any old day in London, not one spent wandering the streets and museum aisles with headphones from either my iPad or an audio guide. No if I was going to do London alone, I was going to boldly go where this Jenna has gone before: to the theatre!!!
Apparently I picked the perfect day as well. It was indeed the third day in a row of gorgeous sun (could I perhaps get some color to my skin?!) and, since it was a Wednesday, many of the popular shows were doing their matinees, meaning that I could see not one but TWO productions all in the same day! Talk about indulging my theatre junkie 😉 As soon as I hopped off the X90 bus I headed over to a tkts booth in the theatre district of Leicester Square, crossing my fingers that I could score a seat to both of my planned shows. I know that all the guidebooks and Dan tell you to go to the “only official discount theatre ticket” place in the middle of the square, but the line was really long and after my experience of missing out on War Horse tickets by literally three minutes, I wasn’t really in the mood to take any chances, so I went to one of the imitation discount booths down a side street. Official or not, I did score some amazing seats for what I consider cheap for the theatre. Next time maybe I’ll get into London a bit earlier and use the official one to compare deals, but I wasn’t going to compromise on this sunshine day that had the makings of being one to remember.
And which shows did I score those coveted tickets to, you ask? None other than Les Miserables and Chicago! Success!
Yes, I’ve seen Les Mis before, but I’m also the girl who saw Wicked six times and Billy Elliot twice, not to mention the number of times I saw each Harry Potter movie in cinemas, so obviously I don’t care about repeating. In fact Les Mis was even more incredible the second time, but I’ll get to that later.
The matinee doors weren’t even going to open until 2 pm, and it was only 10:30, so I decided to wander the surrounding neighborhoods of London, taking advantage of the weather while it lasts (it’s already cloudy outside as I’m writing this, though that could just be the morning haze). I found myself first in Chinatown and then in SoHo, without nearly getting hit by a car once, so I guess everyone else decided that walking and fresh air was the better option than sitting in a potentially stifling cab. At least Londoners appreciate the sun when they get it! Back home we almost get sick of the heat, granted ours is about fifty degrees hotter than yesterday, and eventually start seeking cover in shopping malls and restaurants. But once again I digress into talking about the weather, an apparently way too easy of a distracting topic. So I’ll move onto cupcakes.
No, I’m serious. Among the stores I came across on my traversing the sidewalks of SoHo was the London version of LA’s Sprinkles or Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery: Hummingbird Bakery. Surprisingly they don’t make hummingbird flavor cupcakes, but I guess that is more of a Southern American thing. I’ve heard of Hummingbird mostly through that addicting website known as FoodGawker, and since I obviously make a lot of cupcakes myself, I decided to go ahead and try one of theirs. I was hoping that they would sell their cupcake mini’s in store like my favorite New York cupcakery Baked by Melissa (you have to go if you are in New York!), the perfect way to try multiple flavors and give a truly accurate review, but alas those are apparently only available online and I was forced to get a full sized in one flavor. Of course I had to go for red velvet, that ultimate benchmark for the quality of a bakery!
I’m no where near creative enough to write cupcake reviews like Dan (see comments section of this post for the latest one), but I can give you my highly detailed notes on the cupcake experience in case anyone makes their way to Hummingbird Bakery anytime soon. The first thing I noticed about the cupcake was that it was well proportioned, a frosting to cake ratio of 1:2, and a wonderfully moderate size, not the super-sized monstrosities guaranteed to give you diabetes in one bite that so often come out of US bakeries. The cake itself was a rich, red color with a pleasant medium chocolate flavor that complemented the frosting without either overpowering the other. A little too dense in my opinion–I prefer a fluffier cupcake, because all things are better when they are fluffy–yet still moist. I wonder how it would be later in the day once it is no longer as freshly baked as this one seemed to be. Now the true mark of proper red velvet cake in any form is the frosting. Hummingbird Bakery went the correct route with a cream cheese frosting and not that buttercream disgustingness that people use instead (it’s not red velvet without cream cheese frosting people!) and it was a good, fluffy (told you) frosting, though with too much icing sugar added in for my taste as I’m not a fan of overly sweet frostings. Overall: a solid effort that I would definitely try again if I ever find myself in SoHo with a cupcake craving, but the dense cupcake and slightly too sugary and subsequently grainy frosting led me to toss the last third of the cake part into the bin and head for a corner cafe to down a bitter coffee.
While enjoying that blissfully bitter cup of caffeine, I whipped out my sketchbook and just started drawing. I just recently started to get into drawing, encouraged heartily by my mom, and I knew that by nature of being alone in London I would have tons of free time, so I somehow managed to pack my sketching pencils and book into my already so full that half the time it wouldn’t close purse. I felt so artsy at first, sitting in the middle of Leicester Square, drinking barely sweetened coffee, waiting for a West End production, sketching the cafe patio across the way, until I became so absorbed in the drawing that I lost all that pretension and forgot everything except which direction a line had to go so that I could achieve the right depth of field. I ended up taking up that corner table for over an hour while I finished my sketch, so I left a more generous tip than one cup of coffee called for to compensate. Thanks random cafe for the extremely pleasant diversion 🙂
With still more than an hour to kill before doors to Les Mis opened, I took to the streets of Piccadilly and Regents Street, leisurely strolling past the storefronts and stopping into a Boots to buy a pack of tissues (not going to make that mistake again!). Londoners really came out in droves at lunchtime, so it was fortunate for me that I had enough time to spare so that I didn’t have to rush through a crowd; I just let the swarms slip by me and took side streets whenever I could. After a giddy find of a brand new Whole Foods (they have my peanut butter but not Luna bars, almost success?) more crowded than the streets outside and a quick spot of lunch, I headed into the Queens Theatre and back in time to the French underworld of the 1800s.
I don’t think I need to gush on and on about how incredible Les Mis was, though it completely would deserve another helping of exuberant adjectives. I was surprised that for a matinee it was basically the same cast as the evening show I saw back in March with my mom, with the exception of a different Cosette and Marius (funnily enough, the Marius I saw last time was in the chorus this time looking exceedingly bored). I’ve always associated matinees with the understudies or second string of performers, but I guess the West End is fortunately different. And I don’t know if it is the music or the beautiful singing or just the emotions of the story, but I seemed to tear up for almost the entire performance regardless of what was going on at the time. Has that ever happened to you? When you just become so overwhelmed by the beauty of something that you feel unworthy to experience it and just start crying? No? Okay so maybe I’m the odd girl out, but it is definitely how I felt for the majority of Les Mis. Thank goodness for foresight in buying tissues and not wearing mascara (oh no! Did I just admit to that?).
All too soon the final curtain fell, eliciting the fastest and most exuberant standing ovation I have ever seen from a London audience. The cast even came out for an additional bow because the audience wouldn’t stop clapping, myself included. But all great things come to an end, and I was shuffled out of the theatre against my will. I would have stayed and foregone Chicago for the evening performance of Les Mis, but I thought I would be making a better use of my time to see a new production as well. But Les Mis, I’ll be back!
I found myself once again on the streets of Piccadilly with two and a half hours to spare before curtain up at a theatre four blocks away. The great thing about May in England is that the sun doesn’t set until 9 pm-ish, affording me ample daylight to retake up my wanderings armed with a book of London architecture. I find architecture really interesting, probably because of its very close links with history, but I know very little about it and have picked up a few books with the intention of learning more. That is how my London architecture book ended up squeezed into my too small purse alongside my sketchbook. The poor purse’s zipper. London really is a highly navigable city by even just walking, provided you have a decent map, which I did, and therefore walking from Piccadilly Circus down to Westminster Abbey and back up through Trafalgar’s Square via Whitehall to Leicester Square is an entirely feasible plan of action. And a great, educational way to pass 90 minutes in the fresh air. Only made sense to do so, taking my time to read about every building I could find, discovering the Scotland Yard building for my brother, and really looking at the buildings to understand the elements that the book discussed. Random things like the way Portcullis House was designed in 2001 to evoke a symmetry with the Scotland Yard building despite one being made of brick and stone and the other glass and steel. I never would have even thought of something like that, though once it was pointed out to me I can completely appreciate the architect’s intent.
On my walk, standing outside the Admiralty Building reading about the architect’s decision to forego the use of columns unlike his contemporaries, a random Londoner stopped by me and commented on how I picked the best possible day to be a tourist in London. I thought that it was a random statement, until I soon found out that such a conversation was really just his opening line to ask me for a shandy. With no idea what a shandy was, but knowing that in any situation going somewhere with a stranger is not the smartest decision, I politely declined with a “no, thank you”. Normally that would be the end of the conversation, but this businessman then proceeded to engage me in a cultural comparison of the polite way to refuse an invitation. He commented that it must be an American custom to simple say “No” to such a question while a Brit would say “Sorry”. I replied that in fact I was being very polite by saying “No, thank you” rather than just a flat out refusal. I then thanked him for the compliment of his attention and turned back to my book. And apparently a shandy is a very delicious drink of a blend of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Sorry, but that doesn’t change my mind. And there was his sorry, just for him! Weird interaction.
I promise you that you are reaching the end of my saga; only three more things to go: a city, a surprise, and a fox.
I love the movie of Chicago, even if I’m not the biggest fan of Renee Zellweger, so I made the mistake of going into the stage show with high hopes of a similar sultry and well choreographed package. Lesson shatteringly relearned: No expectations are good expectations. I truly almost walked out and asked for a refund, before realizing that the theatre wouldn’t give me one since I hadn’t bought my tickets directly from them. First problem, the accents. Now I know that a Chicago accent is difficult for an American, much less a British actor, but if you aren’t going to do a proper Chicago accent at least do a Standard American English one, not a Southern accent and not a valley girl. And make it consistent, none of this switching in and out of poorly performed dialects. Second problem, the choreography and stage design. Apart from the utterly boring minimalist stage that could be the way the musical was originally intended, Chicago is based on the Vaudeville and Cabaret movements, so yes the movement should be subtle and sexy, but you can still be subtle and sexy and actually move across a stage at all much less without prancing. For example, remember Queen Latifa in “When You’re Good to Mama”? Yeah, copy her, walk around, actually swing your curves a little, don’t just stand there and occasionally raise your hand to shoulder level. And Velma Kelly? You are not a giraffe though you may be taller and skinnier than one, so don’t dance like it. Third problem, Roxie Hart. The best way I can describe her was a cross between Kristen Chenoweth in Wicked and Yzma, the villianess from the Disney pic The Emperor’s New Groove. I think that gives the most accurate depiction. Fourth and in my opinion biggest problem, where was all that jazz? Where was the sensuality and the ooze? Yes I said ooze not booze, if you are a dancer you’ll understand what I mean. It felt so little kiddish and perky. The story is about murder, manipulation, and illicit activities, not PopRocks and cartoons. To sum it all up in a quote from Derek Wills from SMASH! “Where’s the sex?!”
Which leads me to the one redeeming quality of the night, the surprise…
I had no idea who was playing any of the roles and was running a bit behind when I was approaching the theatre so I completely ignored the posters of the actors, or else I would have been more keen to sit through the show, based on who was playing Billy Flynn. But I didn’t have any prior knowledge and London theaters don’t hand out playbills so as I sat through the overly rushed performance refusing to clap at the end of any number, I had no idea what was in store for “All I Care About Is Love.” And by what I mean whom and by whom I mean RAZA JAFFERY!!!!!
Yes, Dev from SMASH! was playing Billy Flynn!!!!!!!!!!!! He was by far the best (and most attractive, wink wink) actor in the show and made me believe that he has been underused in SMASH since he can actually sing and dance really well. He also kept up his accent through the entire musical thank goodness. His being there was the only reason that I am glad I picked this show, and the picture with him afterwards by the stage door was definitely worth it.
And that brings me to the end of my spontaneous day in London, and to the fox. As I walked towards Victoria Coach Station desperately trying to hail a taxi, a fox ran in front of me on the Pall Mall. Like an actual fox. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real fox before, and I certainly haven’t seen any wildlife besides those blasted pigeons in London. But there it was…a small fox. Random much? 🙂