Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Finale: The Top Fives

It's really true. I'm about to board my one-way flight from London Heathrow, so this last post marks the end of LDN: HOT OR NOT.

Thanks for reading, agreeing and disagreeing with me for the last two years. As a final parting gift, here's a random list of Top Fives (off the top of my head):

Top five HOT London views

  • Babylon at Kensington Roof Gardens
  • National Portrait Gallery Restaurant
  • Skylon at Royal Festival Hall
  • Tate Modern Restaurant
  • Along the canals of Little Venice

Top five NOTs where I've wanted to throw something

  • Cy Twombly at Tate Modern
  • Arbutus Restaurant
  • sorting out ISA account balance transfers
  • Daylesford Organic mail order
  • Bertorelli, Covent Garden

Top five never-to-be-repeated HOT experiences

  • Classical Brit Awards at Royal Albert Hall
  • VIP at O2 Wireless Festival
  • Glastonbury
  • Guest Night at Gray's Inn
  • Swan Lake at Royal Opera House

Top five HOT art

  • Anthony Gormley at Hayward Gallery
  • Henry Moore at Kew Gardens
  • Conceptual art at Tate Modern
  • National Gallery free tours
  • Candlelight viewing of secret Hogarths at Sir John Soane's Museum

Top five NOTs where I had wished they'd just stop it, please

  • Breakin' Boundaries at Roundhouse
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • The Walworth Farce at National Theatre
  • Speed the Plow at Old Vic
  • British Ambassador's Belly Dancer at Arcola Theatre

Top Five HOT cinema experiences

  • Secret Cinema
  • Anything at the Electric Cinema
  • BFI Mediatheque
  • The English Surgeon at the London Film Festival
  • Paris, je t'aime at Odeon Whiteleys

Top five HOT moments which moved me to tears

  • Spyski at Lyric Theatre
  • Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven's Appassionata
  • War Horse at the National Theatre
  • Karma Police, Radiohead, clear evening sky at Victoria Park
  • Getting sweaty with my bestest buddies at Lucky Voice Karaoke

Top Five HOT unusual theatre experiences

  • Helium at Barbican
  • Contains Violence at Lyric Theatre
  • Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre
  • Just To(o) Long at Battersea Arts Centre
  • Hamlet at King's Head Theatre
And you want more gushing, eye-rolling and visceral hatred from Jetsetting Joyce, come and join me at MEL:HOT OR NOT.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

NOT: Madame de Sade, Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA

The third of the Donmar West End's blockbuster productions was the sold-out production of Madame de Sade, starring the venerable Dame Judy Dench. However, on the night Margaret and I saw her, she didn't blow me away. In fact, she even fluffed her lines a couple of times and had to stop obviously a couple of times, leaving her cast members to rescue her from a prolonged silence. Personally, I thought ex-Bond girl Rosamund Pike as Madame de Sade was much better, with her crisp clear tones and elegant and beautiful in her corsetted, crinolined silk gowns.

Further, both Margaret and I found the story of six women variously involved in the perversions of the Marquis de Sade (oddly, written by a Japanese author) to be a bit stressful to sit through after a long day. Along with that, it was at times incomprehensible, with strange fantastical interludes and particularly inexplicable behaviour by the Madame. Overall, not a particularly enjoyable theatrical experience.

HOT: Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, Covent Garden WC2N 4HG

I was in dire straits - my last day in London was rapidly slipping away from me, the National Dining Rooms didn't serve afternoon tea until 3pm and I needed to be in Kensington Church Street for my haircut at 3:30. Circling around Trafalgar Square aimlessly, I suddenly had an inspired idea.

Tranzie and Huy had both raved about Wahaca to me before, but I had developed a hatred for their no reservations policy which had meant that I'd been thwarted from eating there twice before. However, no queues at 2pm on a Wednesday!

Given the number of times I'd been turned away after encountering long queues, I was really surprised by the size of the underground dining room. 'They must be doing something really right' I thought to myself, as I settled into a simple wooden table backed onto a brightly coloured wall.

The menu placemat contained a wide choice of slightly unfamiliar takes on familiar Mexican dishes. In the interests of research, I chose three street food dishes (ranging from 3.50-4.00 each) which my waiter assured me would be 'more than enough' with a disbelieving glance. The pork pibil fillings wrapped in small soft corn tacos were nice, but only became really special when slathered with hot chipotle salsa. Same with the slightly bland chicken quesadillas. The really outstanding dish were the nopalitos tostadas - fresh, light and tangy ingredients contained in crisp corn shells. Next time I would definitely just have variations of the tostadas and nothing else.

HOT: National Theatre Backstage Tour, Southbank SE1 9PX

Transport for London conspired to work against me one last time on my final day in London....hence I arrived 15 minutes late to the National Theatre backstage tour. Luckily, the box office girl also moonlighted as a tour guide sometimes, so she was able to whip me around the first 15 minutes of the tour before dropping me off with the rest of the group, who were in the carpentry and set design area backstage.

The tour provides an interesting insight into the background workings of one of my favourite London theatrical haunts. We were led through various areas, enroute spotting carpenters mending War Horse puppets, artists spraypainting the huge backdrop for the upcoming production of Death and the Kings Horsemen, passing around various latex items from the props department such as an incredibly realistic hamburger, and being told about the massive drop in the Olivier stage which allowed things like swimming pools to be built (Much Ado about Nothing), giant ship prows to rise above the ice (Fram) and the raising of a hot air balloon (His Dark Materials).

The highlight was walking out onto the stage of the main auditorium, the Greek-inspired Olivier Theatre. Surprisingly for such a large theatre, I didn't feel overwhelmed out on stage, and I could even imagine myself addressing an audience :)

Monday, 2 March 2009

HOT: I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The fortunes of unemployment meant that I was able to get to Covent Garden at 10am on a whim - and score a day ticket for a stall circle seat (practically impossible to buy normally) to the evening performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. I can't say much about the unfamiliar Bellini interpretation Romeo and Juliet, and a small portion of the stage was cut off from view, but to hear and see the expressions of the ultra-famous soprano Anna Netrebko at such close range, for the bargain price of 23 pounds, really added to my normal enjoyment of any ROH opera production.

NOT: The Avenue, 7 - 9 St. James's Street, Mayfair SW1A 1EE

Another benefit of unemployment is the freedom to take a leisurely 3 course lunch on a weekday. Thanks to Toptable, I was able to redeem my points for a free lunch at The Avenue, a relaxing, light-filled restaurant catering for the pinstripe-suited workers of Mayfair.

I don't know whether I chose badly, but the food ranged from so-so to bad. My entree was a crab salad with avocado and marie rose. The chopped baby cos, bland crab and tasteless chunks of avocado were ok, and I now know that marie rose is in fact a fancy name for something that looks like thousand island dressing.

My main was a rabbit and ham hock pie with buttered carrots. I know rabbit and ham hock are recession-friendly ingredients, but I've had rabbit before where it has been as delicately flavoured as chicken. On the other hand, this pie was a steaming mass of heavy, gamey odours and filled with unappetising shreds of offcuts. I didn't finish it.

My Devon custard tart with blackcurrant sauce was nice, but unremarkable. The kind of sliced cake you'd get at your bog-standard suburban cafe.

Luckily I only had to pay for my peppermint tea (to aid digestion). Given the other fabulous restaurants on the street, I'd give The Avenue a miss.

HOT: Royal Opera House Backstage Tour, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden WC2E 9DD

My first day of unemployment and the possibilities for fun seem endless! On the spur of the moment, I decided to join the 10:30am backstage tour of my favourite London building, the Royal Opera House. For 9 pounds you get a detailed 1.5 hour tour of the auditorium (the only time I'll get to sit in the 200 pound Grand Tier seats and take in the view from the Royal Box), see the dye room where fabric and shoes are dyed for costumes, peek into the mechanics of the backstage sets and scenery, and best of all, salivate in front of the window of the morning warm-up class for the Royal Ballet. I was thrilled to see my favourite dancers, Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nunez, complete their pirouettes in their tshirts and leg warmers, although it must have been weird for the dancers with all of us standing there mesmerised, like we were watching feeding time at the zoo. Our guide was knowledgeable, funny and full of good factoids, so if you love the ballet and opera it's well worth the time.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

HOT: The Porchester Spa, Queensway London W2 5HS

London's oldest spa, the Porchester Spa, was HOT, literally. Sunday mornings are women only, and I was surprised that at 9:55am a largish crowd had already gathered, waiting of the doors to open at 10am. It seemed to attract girlfriends and regulars, as many people chatted to each other.

At the entrance I was handed two towels, a blue gingham cotton wrap and a locker key. Initially I was unsure as to whether to change into a swimsuit or participate in the nudefest. Given that everyone else - old, young, fat, thin, white, black, Carribean, Asian and Eastern European - seemed quite nonchalant about letting it all hang out, I decided to benefit from a full body cleanse (no one I knew was there anyway).

The upper level was a Victorian green and white tiled domed space with lounge chairs for relaxing before and after your steam. The lower level housed two Russian steam rooms, so hot that I was unable to see anything when I first entered. There were also three Turkish hot rooms graduating from warm, medium to boiling. The warm room, the tepidarium, was probably no hotter than a really hot day in Queensland, so many people took in magazines and books to read while building up a gentle sweat.

In between the heat you can have a blasting cold shower or bravely dip into the icy plunge pool (I got to my knees before scurrying out). There were also treatment rooms for which you have to pay extra, and I never did find the Finnish sauna cabin.

Once you enter you can stay as long as you like, so I alternatively steamed, showered and read the Sunday Times. A very relaxing way to spend a Sunday morning, and with the added benefits of baby-smooth skin afterwards.