More travels, more theatre

Another day out with Mr. Fleming meant a bunch more sights seen. We began the day at Parliament and walked around the grounds for a bit and around Westminster Abbey before heading across the river to the south bank by the London Eye. Since neither of us had been on the Eye we figured what the heck and bought tickets for a 'flight' as they call it. The view is indeed spectacular though because I'd already made the climb atop St Paul's Cathedral, it's something I'd already seen. I'm not convinced the money spent on the 'flight' was worth it for me, but it's nonetheless cool to see London from that high up.

After a crappy dinner at a nearby Chinese Food buffet place we ambulated over to Trafalgar Square and on to Leicester Square as he'd wanted to go to the theatre and we found cheap tickets via the TKTS booth at Leicester Square (made cheaper yet by coupons I had) for a play called "Angry Young Man." We wandered around the Leicester Square area and went back down to Trafalgar Square by the Nelson monument and Canada House before going into the National Gallery for a bit to kill time before the play. After gawking at some paintings we swung by a nearby Tesco to grab some pop and then proceeded to the theatre, which was about a block south of Trafalgar Square.

The play was rather interesting and quite fun, a story about a Russian surgeon who has come to London to work, except he'd been laid off before arriving. He meets a ne'er-do-well socialite at Hyde Park and gets caught up in a whirlwind of events leading to death and intrigue. Except it's a comedy.

The venue was quite small -- perhaps 110-120 seats -- and the performance was undertaken by 4 men all swapping in and out of the role as the immigrant. It was frantic and enjoyable. Russel had mentioned reading a review of the play (we did some quick Googling earlier in the day) that made him think the play was like something one might see at the Fringe back home, and indeed his assessment was correct. It was a very intimate, close-quarters venue with younger, not-too-seasoned (but quite capable) actors and was very much like something one would expect to see in Edmonton come late August. It was only an hour long but a good time was had by all.

Pictures from today will soon be up at the secondary URL.



I've been storing posted photos on Picasa, a website owned by Google and tied to my Google account. Though Google offers one 6369MB (as I write this; it will be more by the time I finish this post) for email, they cap Picasa quotas at 1GB/1024MB, an amount I've very nearly exhausted.

The eagle-eyed out there might have noticed I added another photos page link at the right-hand side a couple weeks back, and photo posts from now on will be slotted there rather than at my pretty-darn-full first site.

While the first URL was http://picasaweb.google.com/cburgess the second URL is the same with 'pics' added at the end -- http://picasaweb.google.com/cburgesspics is where one will want to go for photos from January 30th. The pictures sitting at the first location will not move of course.


A visit from Russel

A few weeks back I knew that a friend of mine, Russel Fleming, was coming to London for a teacher's job fair. He's currently living and teaching in San Tecla, El Salvador and is looking for different pastures. He's got a series of interviews lined up with various schools from Thailand, China, Oman and elsewhere. While he's got a bit of business to take care of, there's still time to take him around and show some sights from this city to him.

It's also quite nice to have a visitor, too!

On Monday I met him at Gatwick Airport and collected him from there, taking him on his frist UK train ride as we hopped the rail line north to Clapham Junction where another friend of his lives, and where he's staying for a few nights. After he dropped off his bags and had a bit of a visit, his friend had to take care of some work so we went out and about for a while.

One place he wanted to go was the Apple store, fellow Mac user that he is, chiefly to see the new MacBook Air; unfortunately, none were yet in stock to be put in display so we had to content ourselves with the other Apple fare. I was tinkering with an iPhone at one point and found it had a valid SIM card in it and actually was functional as a phone. Being an in-store demo unit that somewhat surprised me, but after calling my cell phone and seeing it work I was intrigued. I becked Russel over and told him about it, so he proceeded to try calling his wife back in El Salvador. Alas international calling seemed to be blocked as his call didn't go through.

If anyone cares to give it a ring, a valid phone number for an iPhone at the Regent Street Apple Store is 075 1584 7471 according to my cell phone's call history.

From the Apple Store we walked down Regent Street to Hamley's toy store, a simply massive place spread over 7 floors (though we skipped the girls toys floor). Russel was quite interested in looking at toys for his 17-month old son Matthew, while I was more interested in some other stuff such as the Teletubbies they had for sale.

After Hamley's we kept going down Regent Street toward Piccadilly Circus, tooled around there for a bit, went into the London Trocadero (a big amusement arcade with video games, bowling, a cinema, and more) to see what was in there, then kept going. We went up Shaftesbury Avenue at the start of the theatre district and meandered up to Great Russell Street to hit the British Museum. Unfortunately by the time we actually got to the museum it was nearly closing time so we spent all of 10 minutes in there before having to leave. We went back down Tottenham Court Road a bit back to Oxford Street and as Russel was tired from the jetlag we decided to call it a night and I went with him to the train station at Waterloo (after a series of strange events shut down Victoria station, which was the station we used to come into the city) and made sure he knew what he had to do to get back to his friend's place where he was staying.

Today, after a late start, we met up at the South Kensington tube station to go to the science museum. As he's a physics teacher, Russel wanted to start there. We wandered around there for about 3 hours before deciding to grab some lunch. A quick stop at Subway and we were on our way to the Natural History Museum, adjacent to the science museum. We spent about an hour and a quarter in there, leaving when they announced it was closing.

From there we wandered over to the Royal Albert Hall, mostly because I'd not yet gone there and I wanted to see it, especially at night. I satisfied my curiosity there and we moved on. Russel's wife had requested he buy some good British tea to bring back with him as she didn't care for what was available in El Salvador. So with that in mind, and being near Knightsbridge, the logical conclusion, of course, was to go shopping at Harrod's. We wandered around the food halls (ignoring the rest of the store) for a bit, eventually finding the area with coffee, tea, chocolates and other stuff. Russel looked around, found some interesting choices, and we left the store.

Knightsbridge isn't terribly far from Buckingham Palace, so with nothing better decided for a subsequent destination we headed over there. The palace looks quite nice at night all lit up, and while we were there we observed a lengthy line of cars waiting to get onto the palace grounds, as there was apparently some function there tonight. I pressed to go elsewhere (Trafalgar Square is about 10-15 minutes away on foot) but Russel decided to call it a night as we'd been going for about 6 1/2 hours without much stopping and he wanted to head back and relax. So, we trundled to the nearest tube station and made our respective ways back.

I've come up with some ideas for places to go the next couple days after his job interviews, so we'll see how far we actually get. Tomorrow will be all around Westminster by parliament, and Thursday will be a bit further east around Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Pall Mall, Canada House, The Strand, Covent Garden, and perhaps Holborn and St Paul's if we're quite energetic. We'll see how far we get!


Birthday Theatre Outings, Part the Second

Friday saw the second performance since arriving here of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, this time with the understudy performing the lead role. Lewis Bradley's presence as Joseph just wasn't as enjoyable as Lee Mead's, I'd have to say off the bat. He's too skinny if nothing else, and although he's technically proficient (singing, blocking, movement, etc.) enough to perform the lead, there's just something of about it all. The kid is only 18 though, so it's not surprising he's not mastered every aspect of his craft yet. Nevertheless the show was enjoyable, though I'm not sure I've ever seen any performance of Dreamcoat that wasn't at least partially enjoyable.

The seat I had for it was front row centre in the upper circle (second level up) and the view was great, although being able to see more of the stage (and how things operate for scene changes and mechanical trickery) kills the illusion somewhat.

Saturday was a bit of a problematic day in that on weekends the tube shuts down on a grand scale (at times, anyway) for improvements, repairs and the like. I worked out what I needed to know to get to the other end of town to see Henry Rollins at the Apollo in Hammersmith, but once I got to the tube station I changed things up for no good reason and wound up getting on a train which, while listed as going to where I needed to go, actually terminated about halfway to where I needed to go. So when I got to the halfway point I had to come up with a Plan B, and given where I was, that meant switching to another line to go 2 stops, and switching to a third line to complete the journey.

However, being a Saturday, everywhere was packed. Every station, every car of every train... it was frustrating. Once I got to the last changeover I wound up having to wait almost 10 minutes... not because that was when the next train came but rather because the first two trains which came were packed far too full for me to squeeze on. I said to myself 'screw it' and just shoved my way onto the third one rather than wait any longer. After a few stops the crowd thinned out a bit so at least I could grab a seat and not be cramped.

Because of the tube snafu, I skipped going to a proper place for dinner and just went to the McDonald's by the tube station because I figured I was running short on time. The ticket said 6:30, and my plan was to be in the area by 5:00 to give myself time to find a place to eat. By the time I got to Hammersmith it was nearly 6:00 so I scarfed down some food as quickly as I could and dashed out. I had no idea where the concert hall was and I knew I had to find it soon. Thankfully it was very close (across the street from the mall place where the tube station lets out; of course it was across the street from the entrance complete opposite to the one I used to exit!) and I was there by 6:15 after I managed to figure out how to cross the road (it's a very busy road and there were no close crosswalks; I had to walk down the street for a ways to get across). I was happy to have gotten there in time, what with the ticket saying 6:30 and all.

Except 6:30, as I found out on the marquee, was when the doors opened, not when the performance began. That definitely explained the lineup of people still outside when I arrived. So, fine, 6:30 is when the doors open, no biggie, that probably meant the show started at 7:00. Nope, that was wishful thinking. The show actually started at 8:00. So, 6:30 came, I got in the queue, I went in, I went to the entrance fromt he lobby nearest my seat and waited. They let people into the theatre at 6:30 but not to their seats. The doors from the lobby were closed until about 7:00. So I wait, go take my seat, and wait. And wait. Thankfully I had some leg room otherwise that would have been an unpleasant night. Rollins has never gone less than 3 hours any previous time I've seen him so I knew I was in for a long night if I was uncomfortable. True to form and precedent, he went about 185 minutes after taking the stage promptly at about 8:02.

The show was funny as always, his stories are always interesting and he's got such a great way of telling them. The first time I saw him, at the Winspear, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew he'd done spoken word tours for many years but I'd never been to one, heard one recorded, seen one on video, anything. I was quite blown away that first time, so much so that I'd never missed his subsequent appearances at the Winspear, until this past October of course.

Ultimately I had fun on the Saturday, but the whole process of getting to the fun part was somewhat trying. Oh well, that's what happens sometimes.



Birthday Theatre Outings, Part the First

Wednesday night was Lord of the Rings. I hopped the tube to Embankment (not quite close to the theatre, but that was on purpose so I could walk around and dilly dally and look for a place to eat dinner) and had loads of time to kill. I wound up walking down The Strand, up to Covent Garden Market (where I was sort of looking for a bag for my upcoming trip), and around the area before I decided on dinner at a place called PJ's, a block or so away from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where the play was being performed. Dinner was ravioli for starters and steak for the main with a nice glass of Bordeaux (the first wine I've had since October) and it was pretty decent and not too expensive (the theatre district has loads of places with set menus for reasonable prices).

I was somewhat looking forward to the play as I'd heard some positive comments about it from people I know as well as reading some good stuff online about it. I'd read some negative remarks as well but was still hopeful. The production values were amazing... the stage was split into about 15 segments (making up a circle altogether) which rose as much as about 10 feet above stage level; the segments were used quite well to illustrate the walking, some fighting, and so on. The acting was fantastic. The practical effects were fantastic (the way they handled the Balrog and Spider Queen were great). I'd read this was among the most expensive productions staged outside of Las Vegas and it's easy to see there was some serious money spent on the setup.

Not all was rosy, however. The writing was terrible... just plain terrible. It's a tough thing to fit the Rings story into a 2 1/2 hour play, there's no doubt about that, but so much was glossed over it was hard to follow the story -- and I say that knowing the story! Many characters were omitted entirely, some key and cool plot points were skipped or glossed over, and the pacing was utterly disgusting. There's a lot of plot to get through, a lot of exposition that needs to take place, and not a lot of time in which to do it. However there was more than one time where the writers rushed through several plot points only to wind up at a dead standstill plotwise. The worst culprit was in the third act when after some rapid plot succession the whole production ground to a painful halt while Sam, Frodo and Gollum sat atop the mountain on the way to Mordor and sang of home. Okay, if this lasted a couple minutes maybe I could forgive it. But no, this was about 10 minutes of schlock. It was torturous.

And the songs... oh, the songs. First off, the play isn't a musical as such, rather a play with songs. Songs which were terrible. Songs which seemed very out of place. Songs which were poorly written and not in any way catchy (as songs in a play ought to be). I cringed every time a song began, but thankfully there weren't too many to deal with. Spamalot suffered from this somewhat, though the movie had a bunch of songs in it so you could cope at least. The songs, when considered as part of the writing as a whole, made the experience less than wonderful.

Overall I'd have to give the production a passing grade but only because of the non-writing technical elements. Staging/direction was great. Lighting was great. Writing... ugh. I would not recommend the production to anyone unless they wanted to go for the eye candy rather than the story.

Tonight, on the other hand, I went to see We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre (less than a stone's throw from Tottenham Court Road tube station) and holy crap did it rock. I'm one of those types who prefers to hear songs sung by the original group (with rare exception) so I didn't look forward to Joe Random Castmember singing songs I grew up with and have loved for 20+ years, and while some of the songs were less than stellar (such as Killer Queen being reworked to be in the first person) overall I didn't mind the fact very few of the tunes were proper Queen recordings.

The staging was capable; there was a lift at centre upstage which was used far, far too often to take characters offstage (taking them below stage level) but otherwise was fine. The story was a bit shit, but considering it's hobbled together as a means of taking the viewer from one Queen song to the next it was acceptable. Very little of this type of reworking actually, well, works... the benchmark is and may always be the wonderful movie for The Wall which had a very cohesive storyline developed around the music. It also helped that The Wall was written as a collection to tell a story rather than a mishmash of songs cobbled together from a 20+-year catalogue (and yes, WWRY does run the full gamut from Queen II and A Night at the Opera to Highlander to The Miracle and a whole bunch in between). And the whole thing is funny to boot. Wonderful humour and pop culture references (which get updated as the years go on, at least based on comparing what I saw to what was listed on the official website, as well as noticing characters being naked after recent phenomena like Amy Winehouse) keep the tone light.

One high point was that the sound engineer absolutely cranked the volume many, many times... and I thought that was damned perfect for what could be termed a Rock Opera.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wanted to have a fun night out, and at about 2 1/2 hours running time it's definitely a full night out to see it. I was very glad to have seen it.

Tomorrow is Dreamcoat, and I'll hopefully jot down some remarks about it, though since I've already done so from the first time I saw it, I might restrict remarks to differences (if any) I notice and the performance from Lewis Bradley who's taking over temporarily from Lee Mead.




I've begun some travel plans so I can see a bit more of the area around me. Yesterday I booked my first jaunt, a 3-day excursion to the Emerald Isle to see some sights, especially the Guinness brewery, which I've been wanting to visit for years. There's an old wives' tale I've heard on many occasions that the closer one gets to the Guinness brewery the better the Guinness tastes. There are those I know who don't like Guinness but for those of us who can't get enough of it, I've wanted to put that theory to the test. Not long before I came to England, my stepmother's boss (I'll not name-drop here) went to Dublin for work-related reasons and he confirmed the Guinness tasted best in Dublin. Since the tour of the brewery ends with a "free" (I say "free" as the tour costs €14) pint, I'll be able to find out soon enough if the legend is true.

I'm also looking at a trip on Eurostar to Paris so I can not only visit the City of Lights but also do so via the Chunnel. I just like saying Chunnel. It's not a word you can use every day. Beyond that I'm looking at other places like Edinburgh, Cardiff, Brighton, and for warmer destinations, Barcelona and Rome. A friend of mine lives in Geneva and it's be interesting to go there to visit him, but I've not spoken with him about that.

Most of these jaunts would be quite short - 3 or 4 days at most, partly to keep costs down and partly because there are only so many places my time permits me to go. As it is, I had to book the Dublin trip later than I'd wanted due to blackout dates for the cheapest flights as well as other commitments (no pun intended) getting in the way. For Paris, the limiting factor will be when I can get a cheap Eurostar fare (and assuming I can find a worthwhile hostel as well; all the ones run by Hostelling International have had many crummy reviews).

Nevertheless I'm jazzed about going to Dublin and some of the other places. I'm far from a well-traveled person so I'm glad that's being remedied, if only moderately.



Indeed, reality TV still sucks.

Yesterday I attended a recording of a new reality TV series called "The One and Only..." at the BBC Television Centre. I was hesitant to go because the show held zero interest for me other than seeing the somewhat popular (over here, anyway) host, Graham Norton.

I hopped the tube west to White City and made my way to TV Centre to queue up to get in. The information I was given said they would let people in about 5:00, so I had no idea how early I should be there to queue up (they try to overbook the events in order to ensure a full audience) so I could be assured a seat. Taking a wild guess, I got there about 3:00 and was within the first 10 people in line, so I just waited there to get in. Yep, I queued up for nearly 2 hours to get into a production I didn't care to see.

Shortly before 5:00 we were let into the waiting room (the Audience Foyer, to be proper), and wait we did. It was after 6:00 before people were led from the foyer to the studio, and once we got into the studio it was another half hour or more before things got underway, that time being spent given the audience directions on when to clap, how to act/react, and so on.

Then the show began. The premise of the show is (apparently) the UK was scoured for tribute acts - individuals, not full bands - so the (alleged) top dozen could participate in the show. They broke the acts into 6 from each gender. For the blokes there was Elton John, Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie (yep, played by a white guy), Tom Jones, Robbie Williams and Frank Sinatra. or the birds there was Dusty Springfield, Britney Spears, Cher, Madonna, Diana Ross and Kylie Minogue. Each came out to do their thing and a couple of them actually did quite well (Elton & Dusty especially).

The production I attended was a dress rehearsal in preparation for the series beginning this weekend (I assume anyway; I've not cared enough to find out since I know I won't watch). The gallery wasn't full, but they had the full band, the full set, and nearly everything was as it should be when the first show is properly made. The dress rehearsal was a good idea since the production didn't exactly go off without a hitch. The worst part came during the intermission.

They broke the show into two segments, as seems to be the norm for this sort of show. The first segment, which was about 80-90 minutes, was the performance portion. Then they go off-air for a while whilst the phone lines are open for people to call and vote for whomever they prefer. When they broke for intermission, about 8:10, we were told they'd resume in about 35 minutes, but people had the option to leave if they wished. Since I had nothing else planned for the evening I decided I would stick around the 35 minutes to see the end of the show where the votes are tallied. However, they didn't meet their goal... 35 minutes came and went. 60. 90. They finally called the audience back in and I was in my seat about 10:00. Almost 2 hours of waiting, not 35 minutes. That was... displeasing.

To step back a bit, during the initial waiting period in the foyer, some people were approached to do a mock vote, amongst which was me. We were asked to simulate a vote but rather than vote for our favourite act, we were asked to vote for the two least favourite. I was quite pleased, from a cynical point of view, when after the votes were tallied the two I voted for as being worst happened to be the two set aside for possible elimination. For all I know the whole thing could have been rigged, but still a smirk crept across my face when the announcement was made.

For the first portion I was in the gallery, stage left, along with the others who'd been asked to do the mock vote. By the time the intermission ended, easily half the people in attendance had given up in frustration (as I nearly did, and maybe should have done) and left. When we were brought back into the studio after the intermission we were instructed to sit where we sat initially. After people were seated, they saw how many of the premium seats were empty (there were sections for the friends and families of the acts, friends of the producers, etc.) and asked people from the gallery to move down and fill those seats. As a result, I got to move down to the floor, stage right, third row, far left end, about 3 feet from the stage and about 4 feet from Graham Norton. So that bit was alright, especially when we exchanged a bit of banter during some downtime.

The show finally let out about 10:50 and I was quite happy to get the heck away from there. I enjoyed seeing and visiting TV Centre itself, but feel dirty after being at that production. It was truly terrible, was plagued with procedural problems, and I got the impression Norton didn't even want to be there. Still, he's a professional, he was able to turn the smile and charm and smarm on and off at will, so even if he didn't like it he'll still work through it and happily accept his paycheque.

Still, I got to see some of TV Centre from the inside without having to pay the £10 or so to take the tour as I'd planned to do at some point. I think the trade-off of 8 hours of my time for the £10 wasn't quite equitable though.