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

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.

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.

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.

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.


Getting There is Half the Fun

London Eye
The London Eye as seen from Golden Jubilee walking bridge.

It seems that all our trips begin with some unforeseen snafu. A few days before we left for Italy last year, we had a huge storm that knocked down trees and power lines and left us without electricity for several days. We left our house with the power out, not knowing what might happen when in came back on in our absence. This time everything seemed fine as we boarded the bus for the airport. Less than 10 minutes into the trip, the hatch on the well in the bus where the luggage was stowed came open, and suitcases went flying out on the highway. Fortunately none were run over and the driver was able to retrieve them all without disrupting Route 1 traffic too much. I feared it might be an omen, but the rest of the trip went fairly smoothly.

On the plane from Boston, I decided to get a taste of British drama by watching the film Nothing Like a Dame, a documentary with four great British actors, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Eileen Atkins. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these brilliant women reminiscing and laughing together. I may watch it again on the flight home. (We will see Eileen Atkins in a play this week, but more about that later.)

When we arrived at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, our rooms were not yet ready for us, but we were treated to lunch at the  R. S. Hispaniola, a floating restaurant nearby. Jet lag was starting to set in, but we managed to stay awake during the 2-hour lunch and orientation. After lunch and a little nap, we set off for one of the activities we booked on our own, a concert at Royal Festival Hall. To get there, we crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, a lovely pedestrian bridge with excellent views of the London Eye.

Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Festival Hall stage

The concert featured Welsh opera singer, Bryn Terfel,with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and two young signers, soprano Lauren Fagan and tenor Gareth Jones. The program was mostly opera with some show tunes at the end. It’s always a joy to hear opera singers in concert with an orchestra in a more intimate setting than a large opera house. Terfel was excellent, especially when he sang Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge from Das Rheingold, and I’m sure we’ll see more of the two younger singers as their careers take off.

Tomorrow we spend a good part of the day at Royal Albert Hall listening to brass music and then we see a play in the evening. I’ll share the details here.

Off on a New Adventure

Tower Bridge in London
Tower Bridge Image from Pixabay, CC0

Paul and I are off on a new adventure today, so I’m returning to this blog to share it with family and friends. This time we’re on a group tour to London with folks from the Maine State Music Theater. This isn’t our first trip to London. We visited about 20 years ago, but we had our then 12-year-old son with us, so we planned our vacation around activities we thought he would enjoy. This time, our focus is on musical theater with a few other artsy and touristy activities thrown in.

The advantage to traveling with a group is that most of the planning has been done for us, and we don’t have to worry about transportation, hotels, or luggage. We’ll be staying for a week at the Royal Horseguards Hotel and attending five shows with the MSMT group. We’ve also booked some shows, musical events, and tours on our own, so it should be a fun-filled, action-packed trip.

If you want to enjoy London vicariously through us, you can follow this blog and receive emails each time I post, or watch for updates on Facebook. Facebook has changed its policy about automatically posting to timelines, so I’ll try to remember to manually add the post each day.

I’m off now to do some last minute packing and organizing. See you on the interwebs!