Hamlet at the Barbican. Yes, that Hamlet.

I don’t think I’ve ever waited 15 months to see a play before.

Films yes – I can spend an extraordinarily long time waiting for those – and books… well, let’s just say I really hope Pat Rothfuss is in a writing mood this month (though I know he’s not my thingy).

Anyway, 15 months it has indeed been and finally, finally we got to take our seats for one of the most talked-about theatrical experiences in London in recent years. So I feel like – if for no other reason than the epic wait – I should plop down a few thoughts about what I saw.

I was fully expecting an excellent central performance, and I got it. One friend had said she was concerned Benedict Cumberbatch would have too much gravitas – frankly, be a little too old? – to play the university-aged prince of Denmark, but actually when he’s adopting his own tones and not Sherlock’s moody baritone he does, anyway, sound younger (although it is in Sherlock, I think, that we see proof that childish peevishness is well honed in his repertoire). And his finely honed sense of the ridiculous is simply perfect here. But what I wasn’t quite expecting was the set.

Holy mother of set design.

When we were last at the Barbican, for Richard II (I swear I do go and see plays that star people other than nerd heroes, promise), the staging was so spare; a huge space to fill – and a difficult one to dominate – it was all simple chains and metal walkways. This time the halls of Elsinore unfold and… well, I won’t give too much away for those watching in cinemas or with tickets still to be used. But I couldn’t not comment. As a character, the palace itself almost overwhelms the action; that we were quite near the back and all occasionally struggled to hear Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius probably only made the detailed construction and beautiful lighting all the more obvious.

So… was it worth the 15 month wait? Damn right it was. And now I look ahead into a week of London Film Festival screenings already beginning to feel hints of the sadness afterwards when all the fun is over.

Although after Hamlet, Suffragette, Trumbo and High Rise, some form of therapy might be required…

A Christmassy Outing in London: John Williams at The Barbican and a night at the Malmaison

Since our beloved Pickle was born, my husband Ash (he of the fab design) and I have tried to build in a night away over the Christmas period as a little treat; as Christmas is near our mid-December wedding anniversary, it also functions as a late celebration. This year it also coincided with a particular concert I was glad to nab one of the last few pairs of tickets for – this year’s take on a regular celebration of the music of John Williams at the Barbican Centre. So we did a bit of quick searching and nabbed a LastMinute one night bed-and-breakfast deal for £159 at the Malmaison in Clerkenwell, a stone’s throw from the venue.

The concert was great – everything you want at Christmas, from the cheesy dad humour of star conductor Anthony Inglis* (at various points in the evening a Princess Leia wig, fedora and whip and a Superman t-shirt were all employed) to a joyous rundown of the phenomenally prolific film composer’s most famous works. Highlights for me were a stirring Indiana Jones theme to wake us up after the interval, and some great pieces from Harry Potter; I’d never been such a lover of the theme music but I’d also never realised how phenomenally complex the string section is. According to Inglis, rumour has it that the LSO took twelve sessions to really nail it when the original soundtrack was recorded (the London Concert Orchestra seemed to know what they were doing, at least to my uneducated eye / ear).

Amongst the menace of Jaws, drama of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and soaring sprinting of E.T., gentler moments were provided by Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha and the tear-inducing inclusion of the theme from Schindler’s List. The concert as a whole went seriously heavy on Star Wars, but there were no complaints to be heard. At one point they did the Throne Room piece followed by the entire end credit movement; during the former Ash leaned over and did a very quiet Wookiee growl into my ear, setting off the most enormous, silent fit of the crying giggles. I can only hope that, since were in the centre of the front row, it wasn’t too off-putting to the performers.

And yes, Jurassic Park did make an appearance, though sadly not this version…

 

Speaking of the front row, it was quite brilliant for inspiring the imagination (even if it’s possibly not the best place to experience the full richness of the music as you’re a little too close to individual instruments). Luckily for me, as I love them, we were nearest the cellos, so I could spend quite a lot of time admiring their lovely, deep, chocolatey notes and presence. But mostly I just liked picking a different musician or two to observe during each piece and wonder about them. Was that  viola player, faintly reminiscent of David Warner, actually The Doctor? Why did that woman – a blonde Donna Tartt-alike, glacially beautiful in an androgynous black suit – never once smile? Was that cellist going to realise his bow was disintegrating? There was probably enough to write a short story on each of them, without knowing anything other than their appearance and chosen instrument.

Me, caught by husband looking appropriately 60s in the Barbican while waiting to go in to the concert hall.

The venue itself is also beautiful. The Barbican Centre has always been somewhere I’ve been dubious about on the outside but absolutely bloody love on the inside, even if I can’t navigate it to save my life. The concert hall and theatre are both elegant, imposing and very comfortable, with awesome acoustics. And it’s nice just to have a wander about the building before your event starts.

My sister gave me a gift membership for my birthday this year so that we could have a hope in hell of nabbing Cumberhamlet tickets (we did!). It comes up for renewal in March so I’m scouring the listings to see if I can make best use of it… I certainly used the members’ discount on the tickets, and in the lovely Food Hall beforehand for dinner. Although it’s not a budget option, the three hot meal and multiple sandwich and salad choices in the Food Hall are lovely; Ash had a spicy-sweet Thai Red Curry and I had a stupendously filling salmon fishcake, both with generous sides for a (reduced) price of £16.50. We took advantage of the free jugs of tap water provided to make a small saving too.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

The tea and toast were pretty good, mind.

After the final bow, it was time to shuttle back to the Malmaison, which took, oh, five minutes. My overall impression of the place is that it’s trying very hard. The decor is dark and sumptuous, with some lovely 60s-inspired furniture in the main entrance. The padded lift ceiling was only mildly disturbing, but for me the entire decorative approach was summed up by having one of the bafflingly overrated Jack Vettriano’s prints (Game On – probably NSFW) in the dining room. Meh.

Anyway, for the deal we got a teeny but very comfortable room with a super soft and cosy cocoon of a bed and quite a sizeable bathroom with a large shower (Ash was a bit disappointed at no tub, but we hadn’t actually specified in our search that we wanted one). A continental buffet breakfast was included in our booking but usually costs £15 per head. This seemed ambitiously priced for what it was; lots of cereals (including brands like Dorset), multiple types of fruit and yogurt and two types of pastry, plus toast was brought fresh to the table to order. Generous and limitless, yes, but I’d have loved to see some more bread options etc. In fairness, there was more on the menu that you could ask to be brought from the kitchen in order to keep it fresh (eg cured meats and cheese – great not to see these out, curling sadly on platters!). Perhaps I’m nitpicking here as it’s hard to point to a specific fault, but it just seems to be that for £30 a couple you could get some really amazing food in the area elsewhere. We chucked in an extra fiver each to get a cooked option and had some tasty Eggs Benedict. Again, though, for £40 a couple… well, you get the picture.

Service was lovely and friendly, and when Ash managed to leave something at the hotel and called later that afternoon to track it down they were extremely helpful. All in all, given its proximity to the theatre, the comfy bed and the nice service, I would consider staying here again for Hambatch – but I’d also want to explore some other options as I wasn’t really blown away (a similar deal at the Threadneedles last year was somehow much more impressive!).

 

*More than a passing resemblance to Denis O’Hare, so we have referred to him as Russell Edgington ever since.

No disclaimer needed, as none of this was paid or provided for review – just me musing about a nice evening out.