A Farewell to London

Plane wing and clouds
The view out the window on our flight back from London.

After an hourlong bus ride to Heathrow, a seven hour flight to Boston, and then a three hour bus ride back to Brunswick, we thought our adventure had come to an end. Imagine our surprise when the bus finally pulled into the parking lot by the AAA building where our journey began, and we couldn’t find our car! Apparently the management of the mall where our local AAA office is located did not see the AAA card on our dashboard and had our car (and two others from our group) towed. This was especially distressing because it was late. and we knew we had only a couple hours to nap before we had to jump in the car (our other car) and drive eight hours to get to a gathering of family and friends to celebrate the life of my brother who passed away recently.  Fortunately, one of our tour leaders was able to work it all out with the police and AAA, and our new friends, Lisa and Dwayne whom we met on the tour, gave us a ride home. All is well, and we’ll pick up our car when we return to Brunswick Monday.

It’s likely we will always think of this trip as an excellent adventure bookended by two  misfortunes, one with our luggage and one with our car. But, these were minor annoyances that in no way diminish the wonderful memories we will have of this trip. I have many more photos from London that I’ll post on the London page under the Photo tab of this blog, and I’ll also post some pictures in the Stuff That Amused Us section. I’m going to suspend this blog again until we embark on another journey. Thanks for traveling with us virtually. Until the next time…

History and Fantasy

Cabinet Room
The Cabinet Room in the Churchill War Rooms

Today was our last day in London, and the Churchill War Rooms is a museum on our list of must-see sights in the city. We went there in the morning, thinking we would spend an hour or two. We actually stayed for four and a half hours. Walking through this underground bunker is an immersion in history. It’s really two museums in one, the rooms that served as a command center for Churchill and the British forces during World War II, and the Churchill museum that tells his life story. We took the audio tour that narrated the exhibits and that included recorded comments from people who actually worked in the war rooms. We learned about the cramped conditions in which people worked long shifts and how they often formed close friendships that continued long after the war. It was fascinating and filled in some gaps in my knowledge of the British role in the war and of Churchill the man. I knew that Churchill was a writer, but I didn’t know he was also an accomplished artist, and I thought his paintings were incredible.

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Pelicans in St. James Park

We had planned to spend the afternoon at the British Museum or the National Portrait Gallery, but we spent so long in the Churchill War Rooms that we were mentally exhausted. We decided instead to stroll through St. James Park. to Buckingham Palace. St. James park is an excellent place for observing waterfowl and very aggressive squirrels who are used to being fed by tourists. We took some pictures at Buckingham Palace and then walked back through the park along the other side of the lake and headed toward Trafalgar Square. We stopped at a pub for a pint of cider and an early dinner before heading back to the hotel.

Wicked
Curtain for Wicked at the Victoria Palace Theater

The evening’s entertainment tonight was Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. This is a musical that most members of our group had seen, but Paul and I had not. We were in New York not long after the show first opened and we could have seen it then, but we didn’t know much about it and opted to see Thoroughly Modern Millie instead. We didn’t have another opportunity to see it until long after Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel had left, so it wasn’t very high on our priority list. We’ve watched a bootleg recording of it with the original cast on YouTube, and we’re very familiar with the music, so we knew what to expect. It was a good show to end our tour with because no one hates Wicked, even when some of the actors are less than stellar. In long-running shows you often see understudies and that was the case last night. All three female leads were off, but we saw an excellent Elphaba and an okay Glinda and Madame Morrible. I have heard Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel perform songs from this show many times, so maybe it’s unfair for me to compare. In all, it’s a clever and engaging show and that makes up for some mediocre performances.

Tonight we pack for our departure tomorrow. I’ll post some final thoughts about our London Adventure tomorrow. I’ll also upload more pictures.

An Eye, a Clipper, a Globe, and some Meat Loaf

Thames River
View of the Thames from the London Eye

When we visited London in the late ‘90s, the skyline looked much different. Many of the new buildings hadn’t been built yet and the London Eye, that big wheel of pods over the Thames, did not exist. Today was another good-weather day, so we decided to join all the other tourists for a bird’s eye view of London. We had heard that it was faster and cheaper to purchase tickets online, so that’s what we did. There was a bit of a wait in the queue, but we finally boarded one of the pods for the half-hour ride. Although many websites listing “sights you can miss in London” include the Eye, we thought it was great fun and worth the admission and the wait.

We had tickets for an afternoon play and some time to kill, so we decided to take a quick look at the Tate Modern. We still have plenty of credit on our Oyster Card, but we didn’t want to take the Tube, so we headed for the MBNA Thames Clipper. This is a ferry that goes up and down the Thames, and on a nice day it’s a quite pleasant way to get where you need to go. It’s like a cheap cruise.

That Tate Modern, like many other museums and galleries in London, is free so we don’t feel bad if we only see a part of it. As with most modern art galleries, we saw several pieces we liked and some we didn’t. Much of the crowd there consisted of school groups and I think they were doing what we were doing – killing an hour or so before the play at the Globe.

Globe Theater
Stage of the Globe Theater

We missed the Globe Theater on our previous trip to London because it was undergoing renovations, and I was eager to experience a play in Shakespeare’s theater. The play today was The Winter’s Tale and I enjoyed it immensely. The Globe is an open air theater so we were grateful for the good weather until we realized our seats were right where the afternoon sun was the brightest. Even with sunglasses it was difficult to see the stage until an usher came around and handed out visors to everyone in our section. The planes flying overhead were also an annoyance, but the actors were quite good at pausing or increasing volume to overcome the noise from outside. (I imagine in Shakespeare’s day there were other kinds of noises drifting in from outside as well.) It’s always a joy to see Shakespeare performed by good actors. I don’t know this play as well as some others, but I had no trouble following it, and it was never boring. It was fun to see how the actors played to the groundlings (members of the audience who stood in front of the stage) and interacted with the hecklers.

We decided not to return to the hotel to catch the group bus to our evening show. Instead, we took the tube to the theater and then found a pub nearby for dinner. Tonight’s show was Bat Out of Hell featuring the music of Meat Loaf. Many members of our group are seniors like us, so knowing it would be loud, we were given earplugs. In retrospect, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this show more without them, because much of the time I was just bored with it. The music was good (and familiar – it’s Meat Loaf!), the dancing was energetic, but the plot was nonsensical. The story was a remaking of Peter Pan, but in our after-show discussion it was clear that many in our group didn’t get that. The show included a lot of cool stage effects including pyrotechnics, but in the end I felt I would have liked it better if it had just been billed as a rock concert and not musical theater. Maybe the worst thing was that I couldn’t get “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” out of my head, but I guess you should leave a musical humming the tunes.

Tomorrow is our last day in London. We’ll have a free day for sightseeing, and in the evening it’s Wicked.

On a Picture Perfect Day You Take Pictures

The Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge

If you’ve been to London you know that bright, sunny, blue-sky days are few and far between. Today was one of them and a great day for taking pictures. We had booked a daylong tour with many others from our group, and it was a perfect day for taking pictures. I will share a few here and upload others to the London photos page.

Our tour started on one of those red double decker buses, but we shared the bus with another group who boarded before us and they took all the top seats. We had to settle for the lower deck, so picture taking from the bus wasn’t easy, but we enjoyed listening to our tour guide give us a little history lesson about London architecture.

Raven at the Tower of London
Raven at the Tower of London

The first stop on the tour was the Tower of London. Paul and I had been there before (20 years ago) but what I remembered most were the Crown Jewels and the ravens. We had plenty of time to explore on our own (this time without the company of a 12-year-old) so it was a pleasant morning. We arrived just as the gates were opening, so it wasn’t crowded until jseveral large school groups arrived just before we left.

Our next stop was Borough Market. It was lunchtime so the market was very crowded. We had eaten a large breakfast, and knowing we were having afternoon tea, we decided to forgo the food and explore the area instead. We walked past the Golden Hinde ship to the river, and past the Globe Theater to the Millennium Bridge. The center of this walking bridge is the perfect place to take pictures. Many other tourists were taking advantage of the lovely weather, so it was very crowded and selfie sticks were everywhere, but it was fun.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Back on the bus, we headed for Westminster Abbey, another place we visited 20 years ago, but it was good to see it again. I read a lot of British novels and I watch Masterpiece Theater, so visiting these iconic London settings is always fun. Our tour guide talked about royal weddings and funerals, but her best story was about the Westminster Abbey verger who, feeling relieved that nothing went wrong at Prince William’s wedding and thinking all the cameras were off, started doing cartwheels down the aisle. Of course, one camera was still recording and someone posted the footage on social media.

Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea at Westminster Abbey

Our Westminster Abbey tour ended with afternoon tea. Although I’ve modified my diet in the past couple years to avoid sugar and carbs, I try not to be too obsessive about it, so I considered this a special occasion worthy of an exception to my eating rules. I tried everything including scones, little tea sandwiches, and various tarts and cakes. I ingested more sugar in an hour than I’ve had in the last two years.

We walked back to the hotel and got ready for the evening show, one I’ve been looking forward to since we booked this trip. I first saw Company on Broadway when I was in college and I’ve seen several other performances since. It’s one of my favorite musicals, but it’s very much a 70’s show. This production was an updated version that changed the male lead to a female which necessitated many other changes in casting, book, and lyrics. I had read about this, so I knew I was going to see something different, but I wasn’t sure whether this would make the show seem fresh and new or would just kill it.

Gielgud Theater
Marquee at the Gielgud Theater

From the opening, I knew it was going to work. The sets were clever but simple, the orchestrations were updated (in a good way) and the gender changes made sense. It gave me a whole new way of thinking about the themes of marriage and commitment. Rosalie Craig was strong in the role of Bobbie until the song Being Alive in the second act. I thought she didn’t really sell it, but that may get better over time. In all, I enjoyed the show, especially seeing Patti LuPone play the part of Joanne and hearing her sing The Ladies Who Lunch with all her exaggerated consonants.

Tomorrow we see two more shows – a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theater and another musical in the evening. This week is flying by and it’s been exhausting but I’m loving every minute of it.

 

They Can’t All Be Gems

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Covent Garden Flower Cart

We started our fourth day in London with a walk to Covent Garden, home of the Royal Opera House . When I think of Covent Garden, I think of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Drury Lane, home of the muffin man. We strolled through the markets, looked in the shops, and then made our way to the Royal Opera House. We saw people queuing up in the lobby and learned they were going to a rehearsal of the Royal Ballet. We tried to get tickets but were informed it was for members only. Instead we walked around the building, enjoying the views and the historical displays. It’s a beautiful venue and I hope one day we have the opportunity to see a performance there.

Covent Garden
Street Performers at Covent Garden

We went back out on to the piazza to check out the street performers. At Covent Garden, street acts have to audition for a permit and are given a scheduled time when they can perform. We heard a quartet in the courtyard and then watched a weirdly compelling act by a contortionist. I wish we had more time to explore this area, but we decided to head back to Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a church known for its music and charitable work. Today they had a free lunch concert featuring St. Martin’s Voices Fellows, seven young singers who are participating in the fellowship program of the St. Martin Voices vocal ensemble. They performed choral works and solos by Handel, Purcell, and Mozart and it was a very pleasant hour.

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St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Since we were at Trafalgar Square and had a little time to kill, we went back to the National Gallery to see the Courtauld Impressionists  exhibit that we missed yesterday. It’s a small exhibit but worth seeing if you love impressionist painting as we do.

After an early dinner at a pub, we returned to the hotel to change and board a bus to take us to the evening’s show, Strictly Ballroom at the Piccadilly Theater. I really wanted to like this show, but I didn’t. It had a great band, good dancers, spectacular costumes, and lots of energy, but no heart. It was fluff piece that was funny at times but not at all moving. In our discussion afterward, many people said the movie was better (I haven’t seen it), and there was some talk about how theaters have to put on shows that reflect modern musical taste and will draw large audiences (like Mamma Mia) to stay in business.  I’m not sure I believe that.

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Strictly Ballroom Marquee

Tomorrow we have a daylong tour including afternoon tea at Westminster Abbey and then Company in the evening. Company is one of my favorite shows and I’ve been looking forward to this new production. I hope it does not disappoint.

In the Land of Harry Potter

Palace Theater
Entrance to Palace Theater

Today was a beautiful, sunny day that would have been perfect for strolling through the many London parks, but we had tickets for a six-hour theater experience that I’m happy we didn’t miss. This was the one day when there were no tour events so we were totally on our own. Our friends at MSMT suggested we see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theater, so we booked the tickets several weeks ago.

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Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery

The show is in two parts, a matinee and an evening performance. We picked up our tickets early and had about an hour and half to kill before the theater opened, so we strolled through Trafalgar Square and visited the National Gallery. We didn’t have enough time to see everything, so we zipped through and will probably return later this week to see their impressionist exhibit.

We returned to the theater and waited in a long line for everyone to get through security. The Palace Theater is amazing and probably the perfect venue for this show. We were seated next to a little girl who dressed like Hermione, complete with robe and briefcase. She was celebrating her 10th birthday and told us that she had read all the books and the play script, but she promised not reveal the ending to us. The story picks up where the last book left off, with Harry married to Ginny and sending their two boys off to Hogwarts, while their daughter moans about not being old enough. The plot centers on the middle child Albus who is always in the shadow of his father and older brother and feels like a misfit at Hogwarts.

Palace Theater
Looking up into the balconies of the very ornate Palace Theater. The photo doesn’t do it justice; you have to see it.

The show was an amazing combination of magic, music, and incredible costumes and staging, including dementors who fly out over the audience at the end of Part One. Each part was three hours long, but the time flew by.  There was a 2-1/2 hour break between the afternoon and evening performances, so we joined some of the other members of our tour for dinner at the Cambridge, a pub nearby where I had an excellent lentil cottage pie.

Palace Theater Stage
The stage set for the opening scene

Part of the fun of this show was watching the reactions from the children in the audience, including the girl next to us. Having already read the play, she knew what would happen, but she was so delighted to be seeing it. I think most of the audience had read the books and seen the movies, but this was a total immersion into the world of Harry Potter.

As a teacher, I often feel grateful for J. K. Rowling and her contribution to children’s literature. I’ve known many students (my son included) who disliked or struggled with reading but managed to read the Harry Potter books. Kids who disdained other fiction were willing to put in the time and effort to enjoy these books. It proves that kids have a greater appreciation for good writing than we give them credit for.

Tomorrow we have nothing planned except a show in the evening. It will be a good day for exploring.

 

 

 

British Brass Bands and British Theater Legends

Woodfalls British Brass Brand
The Woodfalls British Brass Band on stage at the Royal Albert Hall

Thirty years ago, when we lived in Iowa, Paul payed tuba in the Eastern Iowa Brass Band, a British-style brass band that performed and competed in regional and national competitions. One year they were visited by the Desford Colliery Brass Band from Coalville, UK that was touring the states and performing. We hosted tuba players from that band in our home and I remember them as delightful folks who drank a lot of beer.

When we booked our trip to London, Paul noticed that the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain were to be held in Royal Albert Hall , so he bought tickets in an effort to relive his brass band history.  We made our way to Royal Albert Hall and found our seats next to two very knowledgeable ladies from Cornwall who explained the competition system to us and told us which of the 20 competing bands not to miss. The bands perform in an order determined by a lottery, and the first band up was Desford Colliery Brass Band! Since they were first, they opened the competition with the National Anthem (and no one took a knee). In the competition, each band plays the same piece, so by the time I had heard Handel in the Band six or seven times, I was ready for a break. After a walk in the rain in search of coffee, we returned, soaked but refreshed. The ladies from Cornwall assured us the best was yet to come, so we settled in for some more. When you’ve listened to the same 16-minute piece of music over and over again, you start to wonder how the adjudicators remain sane, but finally we heard last year’s winner, the Brighouse and Rastrick band, and I felt like I was hearing the piece for the first time. It was a more nuanced performance with rounder sounds and lyrical phrases and I finally understood why that piece was chosen as the contest piece. Paul naturally was very interested in the tuba players, and at the end of the day he said he wasn’t sure whether he feels inspired to practice more or to give up tuba entirely. I had to ask him if the Brits were so good at playing brass instruments because of their stiff upper lips. He did not laugh.

Wyndam’s Theater
In Wyndham’s Theater waiting for the curtain to rise. There was much discussion about whether the image on the curtain is a tree or neural pathways in a brain.

We left before the end of the competition because we had tickets for a show with our MSMT group. We made our way to Leicester Square via the Tube, and went to dinner at a pub near Wyndham’s Theater. The evening’s entertainment was the one straight play booked by MSMT, The Height of the Storm, starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, two British theater legends. It’s a family drama about growing old, dementia, loss, and love. It was disturbing at times but very compelling. I especially enjoyed seeing Eileen Atkins after enjoying her work on many of the British shows we see on PBS (like Doc Martin). It was a great production with an amazing set and effective use of lighting. As much as I love musical theater, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the intimacy of a straight play where I feel totally immersed in the story. We ended the evening with a group discussion of the play back at the hotel.

Tomorrow is a Harry Potter day for us in London. Stay tuned for details.