Saturday, June 16, 2007

The British Museum's Breathtaking Great Court

The British Museum’s central courtyard, dubbed the Queen Elizabeth 2 Great Court, is a vast foyer beneath a curving glass roof at the heart of the building. You have to see it to believe it. It definitely has a 'wow' factor. Like a popular city square, it’s a great area to just hang out with its cafes, museum shops, artifacts and lots of benches along the courtyard's perimeter. In the center is the rotunda of the famous Reading Room (closed on the day I visited). A staircase winds around the rotunda, leading up to the Court Restaurant and upper galleries. From the courtyard, signs point off north, south, east and west to the various galleries of the British Museum’s vast collection of artifacts from Africa, Asia, Egypt, the Americas, Europe, Greece and Rome.
The Great Court is two acres and the largest covered square in Europe. When I explored the museum back in 1993, this courtyard was closed off and apparently was so for 150 years until December 2000. The court is so huge that it does not seem crowded compared to the people packed into the museum galleries. However the best time to visit the museum is in the morning especially if you would like to see the popular collections. Pictured above is the Great South Front which was completed in 1852 and is where the main entrance to the museum is located. Pictured below is the Greek room with the Elgin Marbles (artificats from the Parthenon) along all walls of gallery. Below that is a detail of the artifact.

The museum is vast so visit with a focus on certain artifacts or rooms. The top attractions include the Rosetta Stone, statues and mummies in the Egyptian Gallery; the winged lions in the Assyrian rooms; and the infamous Elgin Marbles and artifacts in the Greek room. Since the weather outside was still rather bleak, I walked into the Egyptian and Greek rooms to gaze at the amazing display. The Egyptian room is the oldest of the museums galleries and was constructed between 1804-1808. I returned to the museum later in the week to do some postacard writing in the Great Court. The museum shop sells both postcards and international postage stamp books (four stamps).

The Gallery Cafe is a good restaurant for casual fare. Least crowded at opening and during the late afternoon, the atmosphere can make for a relaxing meal. The museum is open daily from 10:00am-5:30pm; 8:30pm Thursday & Friday (certain galleries only open till 7:30pm). Admission is free but a donation of GBP3 is suggested. There is a fee to see special exhibitions. Located on Great Russell Street, the nearest tube station is Tottenham Court Road. More information at Pictured below is the Nereid Momument (a monumental tomb) and Egyptian sculpture gallery.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Room With A View

One of the benefits of visiting London in the summer is the extended daylight hours, well extended compared to Honolulu. With the sun rising so early (and setting after 8pm), it's relaxing to take a peak out at the empty streets in the morning. On the Sunday morning (27 May 07) during my visit it was rather too early to head out to breakfast so after using the complimentary coffee service in the room to make my first cup of java for the day, I took in the views from the bay windows of my Kenilworth hotel room.

The top pic below is looking east at the corner of Great Russell and Bloomsbury Streets. A few steps beyond this corner is the British Museum and a branch of the Wagamama chain of noodle shops. The bottom pic is looking west. This is the route I would take to Tottenham Court Road Station and to the closest Boots drugstore. The red-brick building on the left is the Marlborough Hotel, a sister hotel of the Kenilworth in the Radisson Edwardian chain. Both pics taken before 6am.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Patisserie Valerie - A Slice of Heaven in Soho

A Soho legend, the original Patisserie Valerie opened in 1926 and moved to its present location on Old Compton Street after World War II. The cramped interior is a 1950s Parisian time warp, with a cake-stuffed glass counter at the front, a high ceiling and Toulouse-Lautrec cartoons on the walls. If you find the ground floor busy, go upstairs to the shop's brighter, larger cafe where there is more staff ready to serve you from another glass counter filled with sweets.

Snacks, light meals, afternoon tea and a fine breakfast are served along with all the sweet stuff. Your resistance may fail you when you see their tarts, mousses, flans and chocolate, strawberry and banana gateaux, not to mention handmade truffles.
I visited Valerie four times during my visit to London. Their loose leaf teas are generously served in a pot and their English breakfast is as fine as that of any hotel. The English breakfast includes two eggs (poached, fried or scrambled), English bacon, Cumberland sausage, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. If you go in shortly after opening, you'll find tempting croissants in a basket ready to be eaten on your table. Their eggs, salmon and toast is an excellent alternative. On my last morning, I opted for an eggs benedict made of toasted brioche with grilled bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. As for the sweets, I just pointed and ordered it for 'take away' (the English term for 'to go').

The friendly staff and the varied clientele of office workers, students, tourists with the unique atmosphere make it a worthwhile visit. There are eight Patisserie Valeries scattered over central London with two more opening later in 2007. The Soho location was closest to my hotel and made for a nice start or break to the day. If visiting the Soho location during the evenings, keep all your valuables close to you. It is Soho after all and shall we say that 'louche habitues' (seedy regulars) are still a character of the area.

Visit for a glimpse of their cakes, confectionary and ice creams. The site lists all their locations & hours and pdf menu for download. Below are pics of the well-set table that greeted me my last day in London and the facade of the Soho location.

Evita Falls at the Adelphi - The Last Night

Evita at the Adelphi Theatre closed on 26 May 07, nearly a month shy of its one year anniversary. The house was packed with some of the creative team in the audience. Among them were Michael Grandage (director) and Rob Ashford (choreographer). Grandage is represented on Broadway by “Frost/Nixon” and Ashford by “Curtains” and last season’s “The Wedding Singer”.

The atmosphere was electric with the cast delivering the show with what appeared to be a renewed energy compared to the performance the night before. The "Buenos Aires" number nearly blew the roof off the house.

The leads were presented with bouquets and the ensemble with a rose each during the curtain calls. The applause was thunderous with a standing ovation lasting well after the house lights were turned on. With the audience now clapping in unison, the cast finally reappeared on stage for one last deserved bow. Matt Rawle, who played the narrator, threw his bouquet of roses into the audience.

Two days later I walked past the Adelphi Theatre. Scaffolding masqueraded the theatre facade as the marquee for Evita is finally taken down. Below are pics of the cast and Elena Roger who potrayed Eva Peron (photos: quast guide).

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

'Wicked' TV Appearance

Trailer for 'Wicked' at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London.

Something 'Wicked' This Way Comes at the Apollo Victoria - A Production Review

Was the Wicked Witch of the West ever good? Was the Good Witch of the North always nice? All is explained in the transfer of the Broadway hit “Wicked”. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, which borrows from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the story is focused on Elphaba (the real name of the Wicked Witch) before she goes into cackling crazy mode.

Her problems is more than just being green. Her father despises her, her peers don’t accept her and she is an overachieving outsider. She attends college with her sister and meets the popular, yet less intelligent, Galinda (soon to be Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) who first mocks but then befriends the green girl.

The story is littered with references to moments one remembers so well in the classic 1939 film which I found enlightening. We learn of the origins of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Ruby Slippers, and the Wicked Witch of the East. However the show tries to be an extravagaza complete with mechanical dragon looming over the proscenium arch, flying monkeys and bubbles aplenty for Galinda’s big entrance. In this area is only succeeds mildly.

I've previously seen the production on Broadway. Upon repeat viewing much of the humor does fall flat and there is nothing revelatory. Still the actors, mainly Kerry Ellis (Elphaba) and Helen Dalimore (Galinda), deliver their roles confidently. The score could be as clever as some of the twists and turns in the story and numbers such ‘Popular’, ‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘Dancing Through Life’ do satisfy. But many of the other songs are negligible.

This show has got to be competing with Disney on the marketing front. I counted no less than six Ozdust Boutiques selling the show souvenirs. Also despite breaking London theatre box-office records, the buzz seems to have cooled. The seats in the back rows of the stalls were sparsely populated and a sign outside the theatre advertised seats available despite the performance being a Saturday matinee during a bank holiday weekend in London. But a quick look upstairs at the Dress Circle revealed a much fuller house. This production does not offer discounted seats at London's tkts booth.

‘Wicked’ plays at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. More info at Performance times are Mon-Sat at 7:30pm and Wed & Sat at 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP15-60. Book tickets at Recording of the Original Broadway Cast available on iTurnes or on CD on Decca Broadway. Production photographs are used for illustration purposes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Something 'Wicked' This Way Comes at the Apollo Victoria - The Venue

One of the largest theatres in London with a capacity of 2,348, the Apollo Victoria opened as a cinema in 1930 and became a legitimate theatre in 1981. Located across from Victoria Station, the theatre is done in an Art Deco style and was refurbished prior to the opening of the Broadway hit ‘Wicked’.

The Apollo Victoria was the home to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical 'Starlight Express' for 18 years. The musical required that the entire theatre be altered to include tracks for the rolling skating actors, who portrayed train cars, to skate around the theatre on multiple levels with tracks running along the front of the dress circle and into the stalls. Projection screens enabled the audience to watch the action happening around the theatre. On the stage the tracks were linked to a skating bowl and five-ton revolving bridge.

It's unusual for any production in London to publicly announce their weekly gross. However, in December 'Wicked' set an all-time record for a single week’s gross in the West End with a record-breaking GBP873,020 (US$1.6 million). Below is the foyer with two of several Ozdust Boutiques selling souvenirs from the theatre's latest tenant and refreshment counters.

London Travelcard - Buying Your Underground Fare

The Travelcard is easy to purchase and saves money and time from obtaining tickets individually. The Travelcard will allow you access to the London Underground and Bus network.

London is divided into six zones radiating from the centre. Click on the above map to see how stations fall within each or outside each zone. The more zones you want to cover on your travelcard, the more you pay. The main sights and hotel districts fall within the central zones 1-2.

Purchase cards from underground stations. If you are a visitor unfamiliar with the system, it would be best to walk up to the counter rather than using the ticket machines. Request for the type of travel card (one day, three day or seven days) and the zones you will be traveling in.

THE COST (as of May 2007) -
Zones 1-2 (Central Zone)
1-day GBP6.60
3-days GBP16.40
7-days GBP23.20

Zones 1-6
1-day GBP13.20
3-days GBP39.60
7-days GBP43.00

These are adult fares. Children under 16 pay less; children under five travel free.

Be careful how you handle your travelcard and keep your card easily accessible but secured. The card is needed to enter and exit each station's automatic barriers. Barriers are either marked for entry or exit. You are allowed through by inserting your travelcard ticket into a slot in the barrier. The card is released out of a different slot and the barrier gates open for you. My travelcard, pictured below, was kept in a bus pass holder.

Using the Underground

Finding your way around the the London Underground is relatively easy. First of all you need an underground map to give you an overview of the layout. There are maps posted at all stations at the entrance and at the platforms. Maps and route of the train you are riding are also posted in the train itself. Most London guidebooks will have an undergroup map as well.

So suppose your closest tube station is at Tottenham Court Road and you would like to go to Harrod's. You find in your guide book that the closest tube station to Harrod's is Knightsbridge. Click on the map above for a larger view. You'll find Tottenham Court Road right in the center. Then find the Knightsbridge Station which is along the Piccadilly Line. The best route is to take the Northern Line to Leicester Square Station. The round circle at this station stop indicates this is an interchange or transfer station between lines. At this station exit the Northern Line train and follow the signs that direct you to the Piccadilly Line. Board the Piccadilly Line at the platform going west. There are signs at each platform indicating the suceeding stops for the train east or west. Take the Piccadilly Line to Knightsbridge Station. Know which station is prior to your stop. This will give you some warning that your stop is next. There is also an onboard announcement of the next stop.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Tubular Journey Underground - From Entrance to Exit

The closest tube station to the Kenilworth Hotel is the Tottenham Court Road Station which originates back to 1900. The station is serviced by the Northern Line and the Central Line. Like most stations, residents and visitors passing through the station encounter long modern escalators and lengthy deep tunnels that take you to one of the four platforms (one east and one west for each of the two lines). Many of the tube stations in central London are decorated differently based on the character of the area. The Tottenham Court Road Station has mosaic murals by Eduardo Paolozzi and the design intended to reflect the station's position adjacent to Tottenham Court Road's large concentration of stereo and electronic shops.

There are multiple exits at most stations depending on which corner of the street you would like to exit. I mainly used the northwest exit which lead up to the Dominion Theatre (part of the marquee is in the pic at top) and a short walk to Great Russell Street where my hotel is located.The journey into the station takes you deep underground. It is apparent that after entering most stations, there is often a good walk to the train platform through tunnels and up or down stairs. Signs on the platform lets you know the wait for the next two trains. During most of the day the wait is less than five minutes for the next train.

On the tube, you'll learn some new lingo. "Mind the Gap" is a warning to be aware of the gap between the platform and the train. "Way Out" leads you to the nearest exit out of the station. If you are connecting to anothet train, follow the signs that direct you to that line. When riding the escalators, always stand on the right. If you are in a rush, you may walk on the left.

Oxford Street - The Two-Mile Shopping Sprint

My first full day (26 May 07) in London began by returning to Oxford Street. I had not planned to do so but with the return of my checked bag, I was able to return the clothing I had not used and purchased at Marks & Spencer the afternoon before. Besides it was a relatively sunny day with the occasional fall of rain to stroll along the street’s wide sidewalks and visit some of the shops that line this bustling street. Besides Marks & Spencer, Oxford Street department stores include John Lewis, Selfridges and Debenhams. At just over two miles and with over 300 department stores, shops and eateries lining this street, one could make an entire day of shopping. It is Britian’s busiest shopping street with over 10 million tourists visiting each year.

Still suffering from some jet lag, I awoke much later than usual and with a matinee commencing in the afternoon, my time on this street was short and grabbed a quick bite to eat at Marks & Spencer Simply Food upstairs of the Bond Street Underground Station before returning to my hotel. When visiting Oxford Street I suggest you catch the tube to Marble Arch or Oxford Circus Station and work your way until you reach the opposite station. If you feel exhausted half-way of the journey, there is one tube stop at Bond Street to take you back to your hotel or to your next destination. The other half of Oxford's shopping extends west from Oxford Circus Station to Tottenham Court Road Station.

Visit the food halls at Marks & Spencer and Selfridges. The products there are more affordable (and probably just as good) as the similar products found at Harrods or Fortnum & Mason without the fancy packaging and name brand. If you feel you have the energy, other shopping avenues connect to Oxford Street such as Regent Street and Bond Street.

More info about this shopping mecca at

Commercial Clips of London 'Evita' Revival

'Evita' Rises at the Adelphi - A Production Review

The revival of 'Evita' at the Adelphi theatre is the first London production of the musical since the original opened in 1978. Evita is a fascinating quasi-biography of sorts of Eva Peron, who rose from obscurity to become the wife of the president of Argentina. She was reputed to have slept her way up the social ladder and along the way became a radio actress. She died in 1952 at age 33.

This Evita is unlike productions I have seen in design and direction. It will likely become the blueprint for future productions around the world. The production opens into a stunning set for a piazza in Buenos Aires. The set is built on a grand scale with huge balconies, tall windows and surrounding buildings seen in the distance and romantically lit to set the stage for the action and provides the perfect backdrop of the Argentine capital in the 1940s.
The music sounds new again in fresh orchestrations and features excellent ensemble singing and dancing with the audience enthusiastically applauding the “Buenos Aires” and “The Money Kept Rolling In" numbers. Each scene moves fluidly into one another and feels well paced. Elena Roger as Eva Peron hails from Argentina and provides an authentic presence to the proceedings with her accent. Despite being dwarfed in height by Philip Quast (Juan Peron), the actress has a powerhouse voice and smile so wide that it lights up the entire stage. Matt Rawle, as the narrator and on stage for much of the show, delivers a pop/rock vocal and energetic performance. Greg Castiglioni brings the right amount of humor to the cheesy role of the tango singer Magaldi, one of Eva’s first conquest up the social ladder, and Lorna Want adds the perfect measure of pathos to her one scene as Juan Peron’s mistress. I enjoyed their performances of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, respectively.

Heavy on tango dancing, the production makes use of the dance between military officers as they out tango one another for political power. The scene seems unusual, awkward and funny. The big number “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” doesn’t disappoint and is largely kept simple and performed on a balcony that moves out forward stage center. This is also the first stage production to include the song “You Must Love Me”, which was written for the 1996 movie version starring Madonna, and provides a touching moment between Eva and Juan in the second act.

The 2006 London Cast Recording of this production is available for download on iTunes or on CD in record and online retailers. Production photographs are used for illustration purposes only.

Evita Rises at the Adelphi - The Venue

The first performance during my London visit was 'Evita' at the Adelphi Theatre. The site of the Adelphi on the Strand has had a theatre under different names going back to 1804. The theatre has three levels of audience seating: stalls (orchestra level), dress circle (mezzanine/lower balcony), and upper circle (upper balcony) and a total of 1,480 seats. Like many theatres in a the West End, for a few pence audience members seated in the back rows can unlock a binocular on the seatback in front of them for use during the performance.

One thing Americans will learn immediately when attending a London theatre performance is programs are not free. On Broadway, theatres are littered with discarded playbills at the end of a performance. Everyone who purchases a program in London leaves with it. Depending on the production, a program will cost you about GBP3-4 (approx US$6-8). Since 'Evita' was in its last week, the theatre had a special selling both the program and souvenir brochure (an 9x13 booklet containing full color photographs of the production) for GBP4.50.Among well-know productions that have played this theatre: “Me and My Girl” (with Emma Thompson) and “Chicago” (which vacated the Adelphi and moved to the Cambridge Theatre prior to the opening of 'Evita'). The next tenant is the revival of 'Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat' which opens in July 2007. Like the "Grease: You're the One That I Want" talent competition in America, the lead of Joseph is being chosen via television talent show by the viewing audience.

Coming full circle, the first theatre production I ever saw in London in 1993 was 'Sunset Boulevard' at this theatre. That production starred Patti Lupone and Kevin Anderson and resulted in tons of press when Lupone was dismissed from opening the show on Broadway while she was still appearing in the show in London. It reportedly cost composer Andrew Lloyd Webber one million dollars to buy out her Broadway contract.

The theatre is owned and operated by Really Useful Theatres, a division of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. Below is a view looking west on the Strand.
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