Sunday, 14 December 2008

Canary Yellow

Canary Wharf 'nuclear' sunset, originally uploaded by blowstar.

Finally gave in and joined Flickr. Here's my first photo ... a 'nuclear' sunset over Canary Wharf taken at the local DLR station, Pontoon Dock.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ghetto Blaster

Tricky one, this. Imagine you're a producer with a new show to launch on the brink of the worst recession for thirty years, amid plummeting audience figures, in an unpopular theatre, with a cast of mostly unknowns. About the Holocaust. And it's a backstage musical.

This in itself could be a comedy to put The Producers in the shade, but it says something about the central theme of indomitable spirit that has clearly infected the investors, production team and cast as "Imagine This" defies its assault by the broadsheet critics and cheap jibes at its soft target from bloggers (like myself) to limp bloodied but unbowed into its second month in the West End.

I met two of the American small-scale backers who had flown over for the premiere, seduced into contributing to the $10 million investment by a DVD of the less-than-stellar production in Plymouth. They had been told that the show would start to pay back after 26 weeks of sellout performances. Yeah, right, at a time when nothing less than David Tennant or Harry Potter in the nuddy can spontaneously erect a 'House Full' sign ...

Blind faith is another pervasive theme of the production.

In 1942, a bunch of actors are among the thousands corralled into the Warsaw ghetto and, with historical improbability straining at its stays, are encouraged by the Nazis to put on a musical pageant about the fall of Masada (in 73AD when the Romans laid siege to the Judaean mountaintop settlement and the Jews committed mass suicide rather than be captured). Each actor plays both a Warsaw Jew and a Masadist (?) or Roman, and the ludicrous dual romantic sub-plot involves a spunky Jewess falling for the local Nazi commander, and a Judaean firebrand being bedded by the Roman general.

The Roman general/Polish resistance fighter left me cold, being played by diminutive Australian Simon Gleeson whose speciality seemed to be spitting every line whilst keeping his carefully trimmed beard dry, but the stomping Nazis who stopped just short of homoerotic fantasy still pulled focus. Call me old fashioned, but in a musical you're naturally going to favour the tall blond leading men over the whiny and runtish kosher munchkins.

In the Warsaw scenes, there's just a whiff of promise that this plot might pick up where Cabaret left off. Yes, I know there are four years between Kristallnacht and the foundation of the Warsaw ghetto and Berlin isn't Poland, but historical continuity isn't this show's strongest point and I was referring to the variety of musical styles Cabaret manages to embrace, whereas Imagine This is mired exclusively in the minor key, plangent, Kletzmer wail that pervades so much 'Jewish Music'.

But unfortunately most of the hours are given over to the Masada thing, and therein lies the show's failure. One of the rules of 'backstage musical' going right back to 42nd Street is that the audience is interested more in the actors' personal dramas than the show they're supposedly performing. Go on, name any of the shows that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ever put on in that barn. Exactly.

The other argument for focusing on the Warsaw episodes is that the whole Nazi/victim thing has got previous form. From both Cabaret and Sound of Music we know that the good and tuneful get shat on by the Germans, and understand the stock characters of the sympathetic SS officer and the morally weak collaborator. Both here, natch, but not given the stage time to develop their characters beyond the superficial, because we're busy raising barricades and waving an awful lot of red banners (wonder where they got those ideas) so as not to let the Romans climb up the the mountain top and start to blow Gabriel blow. Sorry, touch of the 'Anything Goes' creeping in ...

I must be one of the few audience members (there were about 300 of us last night) who has been to both Masada and Auschwitz, and I can tell you that it's the Holocaust stuff that schticks in your memory, not some 1st Century Judaean Jonestown massacre, and therefore makes the better material for a musical.

My suspicion is that this production, which has a lot in common with Martin Guerre, will be called off for major revisions and come back re-branded and re-packaged (and hopefully re-cast with a couple of faces you could put on a poster) for a more successful run.

It should, because the production values are high, the lighting and staging are very effective - again, moreso on the Warsaw front with dramatic lighting changes and so much gunfire and crashing of metallic scenery that we could have been making the last act of Major Barbara in Undershaft's cannon foundry.

I liked some of the music: the anthemic title song, and one with something about clouds, but it's pretty monothematic and whilst the score contains some good Boublil-and-Schoenbergesque marching tunes, it needs better ballads and more variety. The introduction of the otherwise valuable actor Michael Matus (the 'village idiot' from Martin Guerre) as a camp slave is too "Up Pompeii" crude for the quality of the production, and this whole area needs a substantial re-write.

Lyrics universally need more work: this was the second musical in a week to rhyme 'virgin' with 'submerge in' and frankly Sondheim does it better ...

Peter Polycarpou works tremendously hard to hold the cast together, channelling David Kossoff , and mostly succeeds. I didn't enjoy Leila Benn Harris as a part-time Christine in Phantom, but she's on much safer ground here as the love interest of the freedom fighter, just needs to be given some better songs.

Incidentally, Masada was constructed by King Herod. Did you know his wife was called Doris? Now there's a Jewish momma waiting to be discovered in a musical ...

Friday, 5 December 2008

She IS big. It's the production that got small ...

There's something about Craig Revel Horwood I just don't like. It may be the introduction of confectionery into a surname that insults my diabetic sensibilities. Perhaps other theatre directors could consider the benefits of an injection of chocolate? Would Nicholas Malteser Hytner, or Trevor Minstrel Nunn be any more successful?

It may be the botoxed expressionless sneer he adopts for most of Strictly Come Dancing, or just an aversion to vertical hair, but I had to try hard not to let this prejudice colour my judgement of his production of Sunset Boulevard which has suddenly made the journey from Newbury to the Comedy Theatre in London's glittering West End with most of its cast intact.

What is has manifestly not done is tarted itself up for the trip to town. In fact, like a purposeful Berkshire housewife up for the Sales in sensible shoes, it looks like it's bought an Awayday ticket and is thinking of heading home on the late train.

This is a soundly competent regional production, from the Watermill - one of the most inventive and successful small producing theatres in Britain. Unlike anything you might see in Ipswich or Woking or Watford, it is not reliant on resting cast members of The Bill to attract audiences, nor is it a slave to Bill Kenwright and the Theatre of the Hasbeen.

The structure of the show is the brainchild not of C Revel H, but of the Watermill's resident artistic director John Doyle who pioneered, about ten years ago, the idea that actors in a musical could also play the instruments and dispense with a pit band thanks to the inventive musical arrangements of his creative partner Sarah Travis.

It's a formula which has worked brilliantly on productions from The Gondoliers, cunningly set in a Chicago pizza restaurant, to the outstanding Sweeney Todd which played first at the Trafalgar Studios before transferring to Broadway, giving Patti LuPone her second crack at Mrs Lovett, this time with a euphonium, and winning two Tonys.

At its best, the technique makes musicals more intimate, allowing emotional insight and subtleties of character to emerge from under the cellular blanket of lush orchestrations. I'm not sure if the formula's getting old, or there's some reason for it not to work on this particular oeuvre, but it doesn't.

Perhaps taking the immortal line about the pictures getting small, we should consider that the epic scale of Sunset demands grandiose staging and extravagant production values to match the melodramatic plot and the Churrigueresque characters? Certainly it needs more instruments to emulate that string-rich cinematic sound.

In the 60's, Stephen Sondheim had the idea of making a musical of Sunset Boulevard and collaborated briefly with lyricist Burt Shevelove to put it together, but then he met Billy Wilder at a cocktail party and floated the idea past him. "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim ditched the project immediately.

Clearly, Andrew Lloyd-Webber didn't suffer the same agony of self-doubt.

I love the score. Apart from the fact that it's ironing music - a double CD to see you through the most demanding pile of shirts - and it dawned on me recently that there really only are four distinct tunes in the whole thing, I have loyally seen first Betty Buckley, then Patti, Petula and Glenn Close give their Normas. Shunned Paige, obviously. But this time, it's not working for me. Don't worry, Andrew, it happens to every composer your age at least once ...

Not that you can really fault the performances - Kathryn Evans gives her all in pursuit of the fractured heart and tortured soul of Norma Desmond and in some moments - notably her delusional return to Paramount with 'It's As If We Never Said Goodbye' she nails it absolutely.

It's Lloyd-Webber's fault that "With One Look" comes too early in the show to be effective. When she's in her light, and on her notes, this is thrilling stuff. But in this production she's too often clambering up or down a cranked metallic spiral staircase in heels and a succession of rhinestone peignoirs. Clearly she got the rump of the costume budget because everyone else seems to be in grey and white separates which might have been picked from Debenhams, since they owe little to period or place.

As Joe Gillis, relative newcomer Ben Goddard has to follow great performances like John Barrowman and Hugh Jackman, and whilst marginally less attractive, he has the ordinary guy 'aw shucks' likeability and the floppy haircut, but his range of expressions is perhaps equally floppy.

He does very well in some of the numbers, jolting the production out of its misty unreality with genuine fire in the duet "Too Much in Love to Care" played angrily against flame-haired Laura Pitt-Pulford as Betty Schaefer. In fact so convincing was the tempestuous love-hate argument between the angry young man and the redhead, it threatened to lapse in to Will and Grace: the Musical, highlighting the possibility that Kathryn Evans and Karen Walker could be cousins.

At least he affects an American accent. I have no idea why Evans elected to play Norma quite so cut-glass home counties.

Dave Willetts adds to the grand guignol mood of the drama with a dark characterisation for the servant/husband Max, and effortlessly excellent singing you'd expect from a veteran Jean Valjean and Phantom. The ensemble keep up their instrumental playing relentlessly, and play the entire score from memory, but it does cause some detraction from the diction and the impact of some of the punchier numbers like the rousing 'This Time Next Year' is lost.

I was expecting more from the choreography since that's Revel-Horwood's forte, allegedly. Apart from some nifty traffic-direction with the performers and their instruments moving rapidly without collision, there's little actual dancing - except when Joe and Norma perform the tango in a version so obviously more indebted to Strictly Come Dancing than thirties Hollywood, that you could feel the entire audience clenching to avoid shouting "bring back John Sergeant!"


Kathryn Evans is Mrs Peter Purves (of Blue Peter fame). They met in pantomime in 1978 when she was Dandini and he was Baron Hardup.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Night fever, night fever. We know how to do it.

With the Whingers to a Sunday matinee of 'A Little Night Music' in its Trevor Nunn reincarnation at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, auditorium neatly reoriented from the womblike velvet tunnel structure for Cage aux Folles to something resembling a miniaturised hexagon, pre-theatre lunch nicely presented, seats now numbered and reserved, toilets clean, doors to automatic, all boxes ticked for an enjoyable afternoon ...

In this extraordinarily classy production, with money spent in ways to which the Menier is unaccustomed - set, costumes, cast, lighting (needs a few more shillings in the meter, Trevor) and backstage, this production looks destined for a West End transfer before it opens. Except I hope it doesn't, because the intimacy of the production generates an involvement in the family lives of the lawyer Fredrik and the actress Desiree that I just don't remember from the Judi Dench version in the Olivier in 1995.

In fact, all I can recall of the Olivier production was the cast, including an increasingly breathless Dench, running the huge distances on and off stage between every scene. It could have been directed by Sebastian Coe.

With compactness comes brevity. For Trevor Nunn to bring in a show at under three hours is something of a rarity, but this one keeps a good pace despite the languorous nature of the Swedish summer night, and its underlying themes of despair.

What drove it for me was the energetic and realistic performances of Alexander Hanson (every time I see him deliver another cracker of a male lead I wonder how he failed so badly as Captain von Trapp?) and even more cracking Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, making her a living, breathing, funny, fallible, sexually urgent and credible beauty in ways I can't recall other actresses achieving in the same role.

It's Waddingham's wholly believable central performance that reminds us this is a comedy. Too many directors have treated ALNM as if it were some Ibsenesque holy writ, overshadowed by the Guardian-reader movie and its self-styled auteur Ingmar Bergman. For once, Nunn accentuates the base comedy, and it could do with even more to reposition this as an ENJOYABLE piece of Sondheim, rather than a museum piece out of his 'stultifying' box like Sunday in the Park.

What this production could NOT do with is the unbalancing presence of that old Golders Green department store Maureen and Lipman whose contents have yet again been spilled on the London stage. Teetering between a dessicated Thatcher and Miss Havisham, Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt as a powdered corpse, picking up every vowel with sugar tongs and flicking them at the audience with her trademark sideways glance in stark contrast to the naturalism all around her.

Trevor Nunn sat on the aisle across from me and scribbled notes almost continuously through the show with a green-illuminated pen-light. After Lipman stretched her number 'Liaisons' into a caramel-jawed dirge, I swear I saw him write "phone Sheila Hancock".

Lipman aside, the singing in the show is excellent. Hanson's rich baritone pins Fredrik perfectly, and even the 'more actress than singer' members of the cast give excellent musical performances. Ingenue Jessie Buckley (apparently a runner-up Nancy in the TV search for a star programme) features strongly as Fredrik's young wife Anne and assails Sondheim's dressy tessitura with bravado.

The Liebeslieder or chorus of smaller characters deserve special mention. I always enjoy comparing the shapes and sizes of the bit-part players to the leads, and try to match the more obvious understudies. Here it also works where an older lady, a tall woman, a pert girl and two heroic male-leads-in-waiting are assembled, but this time they are surprisingly fine singers and actors, and if the curse of the Menier were to call any of them into a lead role, it would not diminish the production at all.

Destined for a three month run, I'm unsure how the economics work. Even though it will sell out, 13 weeks of full houses will only generate about £600k, and I can't see how that will pay this large cast of experienced actors, and Mr Nunn, what they deserve.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Caption Competition

Michelle: I wear red because my husband is full of fire.

Laura: I'll get my coat ...

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Full Cupboard of the School of Life

In a somewhat lager-fuelled discussion about writing, after last week's session of The School of Life, some of my classmates challenged me to produce a 'No 1 Ladies Detective Agency' story, in which Mma Ramotswe travels to England and visits a relation who owns (and it's a genuine place) the 'It'll Grow Back' hair salon in Hackney.

Here goes, Chapter 1 :

Outside the offices of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Speedy Motors garage, the early morning traffic made its way along the Tlokweng road. Since it was very early morning, much of this traffic was animal rather than mechanical as the lurching overfilled minibuses bringing workers to the offices and retail establishments of downtown Gaborone competed with unmilked goats and two cows being herded to the livestock market.

This last sound caused Mma Ramotswe to look up from drafting her list of things to do. She had considerable respect for cattle, even for the two gaunt and rangy specimens outside her door navigating the potholes and stony obstacles of the Tlokweng road unaware that their ownership was to be changed forever later that morning for a few hundred pula. For it was due to the diligence and foresight of her dear late father, Obed Ramotswe, farmer and herder of cattle under the wide Botswana skies, that she owed her modest inheritance and her ability to found the first Ladies Detective Agency in the country.

Mma Ramotswe scratched some items from her list and added others. The early morning was the best time to do anything, particularly in the hot season. In the hot months, before the rains arrived, the temperature soared as the day wore on until the very sky seemed white. In the cool of the morning, when the sun barely warmed the skin and the air was still crisp, any task seemed possible; later, in the full heat of the day, both body and mind were sluggish.

It was easy to think in the morning - to make lists of things to do - in the afternoon all one could think about was the end of the day and the prospect of relief from the heat. It was Botswana's one drawback, thought Mma Ramotswe. She knew that it was the perfect country - all Batswana knew that - but it would be even more perfect if the hottest months could be cooled down.

The list was headed “Visit to England”.

The list, as most of Mma Ramotswe’s frequently-produced ‘to do’ lists, featured a very large number of administrative and organisational items which could be ticked off with mounting satisfaction as the morning progressed, in keeping with her philosophy of undertaking as many tasks as possible before the heat of the day laid waste to plans and rendered the most diligent and industrious of personages physically weakened and mentally exhausted.

Today’s list included some serious duties connected with passport and visas, and reminders to telephone certain government departments appointed to oversee the proper procedures for arrival and departures of Botswanan nationals across its borders, to make a visit to the Mall branch of the First National Bank of Botswana to order foreign currency, the requirement to make photocopies of her sponsorship letter and the health certificate recently initialled and solemnly stamped by Dr Leonard Modisapodi in the surgery of his small house just off the Gaborone end of the Tlokweng road.

None of these caused the least trepidation within Mma Ramotswe. That inner anxiety she reserved totally and exclusively for the first item on the list.

The first item was “Tell Mma Makutsi.”

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

On Such A Night as This

There's something in the air that you can sense
Elusive yet unbearably intense
The stars are standing there in bright suspense
As they prepare to light immense events

So starts "On Such A Night as This" by the remarkable American lyricist Marshall Barer - and it accurately encapsulates the tingling feeling I'm getting at the prospect of a wind of change blowing across the United States.

Whatever the night holds for Mr Obama, by whatever margin he is elected, whatever policies he pursues and by whomever he surrounds himself for the next four or eight years, America should get on its collective knees and give thanks for the fact that he isn't that self-serving, cronyist, bigoted, ignorant, racist, sexist, homophobic, corrupt c*nt George W Bush.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The Norman Failures

As newspaper reviewers have said, comparisons are odious but I'm going for it anyway. In 1974, The Norman Conquests trilogy was a landmark in theatre comedy, Ayckbourn's coming of age and coming to town in the first of the interlinked/alternate ending series of plays. It was also cast with actors who WOULD BECOME household names in TV sitcoms, not those who had already achieved the dubious honour and thereby lies the failure of the Old Vic production.

Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon already had impressive stage credentials, and it's not fair to set their reputations against Stephen Mangan and Ben Miles respectively. Mangan is an excellent TV actor, deservedly rated for Green Wing as much as his Barclaycard adverts, but he's miscast as the wild and woolly Norman, failing to emulate Courtenay's touching pathos and vulnerability, and whilst magnetic on the small screen, unkempt and undressed for the stage he seems to have lost his allure.



Ben Miles does much better in the role of Tom the vet, but his tragic flaw is simply that he is not Michael Gambon.

Ayckbourn writes best for women and two of the three female characters became archetypes for possibly two of the most popular TV characterisations ever. 'The Good Life' writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey chose Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith after seeing them perform on stage together and the characters of Margo and Barbara represent a tangible debt to The Norman Conquests.

Amanda Root doesn't have the stature to be as commanding as Keith, and seems all the more peevish by comparison: her transcendence into passionate woman is far less believable without the physical hauteur to set up the situation. Jessica Hynes (Stephenson) is another solidly talented TV writer and actor, but can't achieve the girlish vulnerability of Kendal's Annie and has been dressed appallingly by a costume designer whom I would guess didn't live through it and has therefore treated the period as a joky freak show, instead of researching more accurately suburban fashion of the mid-70s.

Pitching the play in the round lends it a fresh initimacy, taking it back to the original Scarborough production of 1973 - although these are not necessarily characters with whom one would wish to be intimate since all of them have an unpleasant side - and this encouraged some of last night's audience to make audible contributions. Perhaps Ayckbourn should develop an interactive script.;

Saw Andrew Lloyd Webber in the audience, I hope he's not considering turning it into a musical.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Torch Song

I'm having a Ken Barlow moment. In the longest running soap opera, he has dusted down from the attic his youthful novel, compared it briefly to the writers he currently admires, and torched it.

I have nothing to torch but my memories, as Oscar almost certainly wouldn't have said, but as I sit on the tube or the train and arrange blog paragraphs in my brain, I have only to pick up a morsel of Will Self or Julian Barnes to realise how far short my own prose falls, and have a mental conflagration of erasure. And that phrase is a perfect example of why I need the blue pencil.

Although on the train home from Glasgow this week I did read some potboiled Alexander McCall Smith and think "I could do that in my sleep".

But it's the Julian Barnes that's exercising me at the moment. His latest book, Nothing to be Frightened Of is semi-autobiographical jog around the quadrangle of his mid-life crisis, touching on mortality, family, philosophy and faith - four things guaranteed to flay the nerves of an insecure middle-aged male reader.

I was lying on the sofa reading a chapter the other day and the thought struck me - I could live another thirty years.

That would be the equivalent, apart from four mis-spents in Southampton before coming to London, of my entire adult life.

All over again.

What the hell am I going to do with it?

With the conclusion of the Russian adventure, work is now all but a thing of the past - or at least I suspect it is. I joked with my bank manager recently that I wanted a "work/life balance - I've worked for thirty years, now can I have thirty off?" ... and, providing the world doesn't go into financial meltdown, even that's not impossible.

The other things, health, relationship, home, seem to be more than OK so this should be a springboard, a platform to something exciting.

All I need is a sign.

Universe? Over to you ...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Nothing Like a Dame

Roll up! Roll up! Hear a Dame of the British Empire say "fuck" repeatedly (and it's not Judi Dench for once)! Appreciate how Colin Farrell could find 74-year old Eileen Atkins shaggable!! Laugh at the spoof of Germaine Greer !!!

Despite having portrayed the dourest and sourest spinsters in a stream of poke bonnet-dramas from Gosford to Cranford, Eileen Atkins emerges into the french windowed daylight as a svelte sassy and sexy septuagenarian with adroit comic timing in Joanna Murray-Smith's play The Female of the Species about a sometime-academic sometime-televisual endlessly-published feminist held hostage in her own home by a psychotic fan. The hommage (or should that be femmage?) to Dr Greer is palpable but not unkindly so.

The great thing about this play is it makes you laugh, then it makes you think, then it makes you laugh about what you have been thinking. By holding the entire 20th century discourse on feminism up to the distorted mirror, it put air round every issue which has confronted men and women in their relationships - and exposes the contradictions in values and priorities which seem to have occurred about every twenty years through the century.

This is pictured through the tribulations of the second lead, Anna Maxwell Martin delivering a neurotic but deeply comic "devoted fan" who takes Atkins hostage in the early minutes of a tight 1 hour 40 plot. Maxwell Martin's character was abandoned by her mother for adoption in following the Atkins/Greer character's advice to "reject dependency" and died under a suburban train holding a copy of her seminal feminist book The Cerebral Vagina which is where the piece comes closest to reality in its parody of Greer's deservedly legendary The Female Eunuch. That it also comes glancingly close to Anna Karenina is just jam on it.

There are some stunning moments in these two performances, with control occasionally passing from one to the other in a way which is only achievable through impeccable acting and mutual respect of the actors. Just when you think it can't get any better, enter Sophie Thompson as Atkins' exhausted child-rearing daughter who is just possibly more keen than the hostage-taker to see her mother shot at point blank range.

People often say that plays "descend into farce" but it's at this point that The Female of the Species ascends into it, as both the comic potential and the central feminist debate become heightened by the arrival of the new character and her different and deviated perspective. Thomson's performance is every bit as taut as Maxwell Martin's and she has some of the best lines.

If anything, the play loses a little power in the final scenes where the plot is resolved, the gun is fired, and two male characters arrive - Thompson's doting but dull husband and an irrationally cast Con O'Neill (a man who I always think seems to have his arms on backwards, and who still seems to be doing Blood Brothers twenty years after he won the Olivier for it) as a taxi driver with a reactionary dialectical deconstruction of the feminist argument.

Whist willing to speak the profanities, Atkins apparently rejected a scene in which her character masturbates on the edge of a table to which she is handcuffed. We spent a happy half hour trying to decide which American actress should do it on Broadway if Atkins declines. My money's on Lily Tomlin. And she would.

Friday, 21 March 2008

The Hotel Inspector

On a whim, I've been for a weekend on the Suffolk coast at a property owned by Ruth Watson, the somewhat painted-and-decorated star of Channel 5's "The Hotel Inspector".

For the uninitiated, this is a programme in which she dispenses caustic advice and a general browbeating to the faltering proprietors of lesser establishments with decor, staff, marketing or hygeine problems.

Naturally, you'd expect her own business, the Crown and Castle Hotel in sweetly pretty Orford, to be exemplary.

It's exemplary of something, but not fine hotelkeeping.

The decent enough hotel building (for 'hotel' read comfy old pub) has been extended into the garden (for 'garden' read car park with attached scrap of grass) by a row of what can only be described as Butlin's chalets - a terrace of pitched roofed, clapboarded, glazed front doored hutches each containing a normal sized double bedroom and a small bathroom.

The compromises and the cheapness are everywhere: no wardrobes, just a chromed metal railing with coathangers and a snappy note about not pinching them (more about the snappy notes later), tub chairs too small to sit on, nineties-trendy but now just scratchy seagrass carpet, disposable plastic water glasses and vinyl flooring rather than tiles in the bathroom and a teeny-tiny flat-screen TV with an irritating blue standby light that glows so brightly in the night, you'd think you'd stumbled into a particularly cataclysmic episode of 'The Bill'.

All of which would be fine, if this was a typical British B&B at the national average rate of £60. But our room cost £155, which is more than going it a bit for a wintry Sunday night in off-season early March.

And I never expected the cobweb.


Monday, 28 January 2008

Gordon Blue

I've been to Dubai on business and ate one night at "Verre", the Gordon Ramsay branded a la carte joint in the Hilton and I have to say it was one of the most irritating and boring evenings I've ever had in a restaurant.

Firstly, it's uncomfortable - the tables are too close together and there's no view nor interest in the decor, not even great flowers or arrays of wine bottles, it's a pretty bland dull room. The French-ified manager exudes so much hauteur even Gordon would have a problem to slap some customer service out of him, and the mostly Indian waiters whilst charming have been drilled into formulaic, scripted service which saps the life out of the whole experience, and leaves you feeling exhausted and processed.

The presentation of food is fawning and beyond pretentious. "May I present your pre-starter starter", "Did you enjoy your amuses-bouches", indicated the number and incidence of the additional courses which mean you don't really need to order more than two or three from the menu because you could almost make your meal off the introductory basket of chicken pate, boursin profiteroles, pastry straws and a spiral-whipped turd of aubergine puree, the pre-starter pouring of soup with cream and caviar, the pre-dessert dessert (a vile concoction of fruit and shaving foam which reminded me of the Lyons Maid "peach parfait" plastic cone ice creams we had at Saturday morning cinema when I was about ten), the petits fours and the complimentary chocolates.

Everything has four too many ingredients - and the humourless management won't permit any variation to the order, portion control is clearly king ... when I suggested I might prefer more scallop and less pork belly in my oddly combined starter, the manager said "it's three pieces scallop and two of pork, take it or leave it" ... and I wish I'd left it.

The scallops were OK, but the caramelised pork belly roundels were greasy and nasty, and the pan-fried watermelon 'earplugs' (because that's what they looked like) that accompanied it were downright laughable. I mean, who fries watermelon?

Fillet of beef was a small serving but a nice cut, and the menu listed the many accompaniments including caramelised salsify, celeriac puree, mousseline potatoes and madeira jus. When it arrived in a wobbling tower of mushroom duxelles on unexpected spinach foundations and with a fried quail egg slimily perched on the top, I could cheerfully have thrown it across the room. Egg is such a popular allergy, why not mention its presence on the menu?

By the time I'd worked my way through the inter-courses to the sickly chocolate and caramel semifreddo, I was bored beyond my capacity to enjoy the experience and just wanted to get out of the place, and breathe.

My fellow diners were mostly middle-aged British couples too awed by Ramsay's TV fame and their opportunity to worship at the shrine to realise that this was over-complicated food with pompous service which feels outdated and claustrophobic.

I just wish Gordon had been there so I could have told him to his face.