With Tom and I still away, Amy dashed on down to the New Theatre in Oxford to see ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’.

Had you have asked me two nights ago who Carole King was, I probably would have replied with a very lame “didn’t they do a Glee episode about her songs?” [Jess: I was appalled when I read this!] Now, I could enthusiastically tell you the story of her life from 16-year-old girl to her 1971 Grammy award winning album, Tapestry.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical sets out to tell the tale of Carole King, the most successful female, American songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century. The show starts with Carole on stage at the Carnegie Hall in the 1970s, not quite believing so many people in the audience are there to see her despite the huge success of her first solo album. The show then rewinds 14 years, to when New Yorker Carole was 16 and already a songwriting talent. We watch as she meets the man who was not only her first love, but her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin.

Unbeknownst to many, including me, King and Goffin went on to create some of the most memorable music of the 1960s – such as Will You Love Me Tomorrow, The Locomotion (no it turns out that the Kylie version was not the original) [Jess: Oh Amy!] and Take Good Care Of My Baby. Hit after hit is wonderfully sung throughout the show – so far so jukebox musical.

The real success of the show lies with the portrayal of Carole, skilfully done by Bronté Barbé – a finalist on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Over The Rainbow talent search. Her voice is astonishing and her performance captivating. She was belting out some of the most famous songs ever written with confidence and conviction.

She was well supported by Grant McConvey as Goffin, who gave us a conflicted character who flitted between nasty and nice. King and Goffin’s songwriting competition, and best friends, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were played with charm by Matthew Gonsalves and Amy Ellen Richardson – adding some needed comedy to the show in darker times.

This was a slick production, with fluid set changes, some fabulous, glittering costumes which screamed 1960s, and a lively ensemble who took on some of the era’s most famous r’n’b and rock’n’roll groups.

My only slight issue with the show was the pace. Cramming 14 years worth of events, some completely life-altering for King, into two and a half hours made it feel a little too formulaic for real intensity at times.

Overall, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a show which portrays the interesting early-life of Carole King with joy, passion and humour. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be shocked at how many of the songs you recognise, and by the sheer talent of the ensemble cast.

You can catch Beautiful in Oxford until Saturday 12th May and across the country until the 23rd of June.

With Tom and I finally off on our three-week honeymoon, Amy headed down to the New Theatre, Oxford to check out the latest production of Thoroughly Modern Millie which is on tour across the country.

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' Musical Tour

Based on the 1967 Oscar-winning film starring, acting royalty, Julie Andrews; this week I had the pleasure of seeing the UK touring production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Set in 1920s prohibition New York, Millie, a small town Kansas girl, arrives hoping to take the acting world by storm – as well as marry one of the ten most eligible bachelors the city has to offer. Millie wants to be a truly ‘modern’ woman!

Apart from the soundtrack filled with iconic 1920s jazz, it’s the talents of the cast that make this production. Any fan of Strictly will enjoy the classic Charleston steps and synchronised tap dancing, and the singing was some of the best I’ve heard in a touring production.

A special shout out goes to Millie herself, Hayley Tamaddon. Known for her roles in Emmerdale and Coronation Street, as well as being a finalist on Dancing on Ice some years ago, I expected Hayley to be a talented actress whose singing might have left something to be desired. How wrong I was. Tamaddon made the production with her exceptional vocals, Charleston swivel and pure all-American girl charisma.

With the show being adapted in 2002 from the 1967 film of the same name, some aspects of the story do fall flat. I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed that after Millie has her revelation that she should chose the man she loves over her gold-digging desires, the man she loves turns out to be the rich, New York bachelor she’s been dreaming of. But hey-ho… the story’s a product of its time!

Without a doubt the crowing glory of the show is its comedic timing. Villain Mrs Meers, brilliantly played by Lucas Rush, is almost pantomime-like in his villainous audience interaction – which can’t help elicit giggles from the crowd. While Richard Meek, playing businessman Trevor Gaydon, had the audience in stiches with his very accurate portrayal of a love-sick man who has had one too many drinks.

Overall, Thoroughly Modern Millie is an enjoyable evening out – packed with fantastic dancing, exceptional singing and jokes that will make you laugh out loud. Now… I’m off to go and watch the film… (I do love Julie!)

You can catch Millie on tour in Bath between 29 May and 2nd June, with more dates to be added soon.

Sulgrave Manor Wedding Tom and I have celebrated our fourth month as husband and wife after we tied the knot last December at Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire. There was certainly someone smiling down on us that day as we had perfect winter weather – sunny, a touch of frost albeit pretty darn chilly.  Come Sunday, the area had the worse snow for some years and was covered in an even twelve inches. Much of the wedding party ended up with an extended stay in the Cotswolds. Our wedding will certainly be memorable – for all the right reasons though!

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

The Weekend Tourist is not really a wedding blog per se, but it is about discovering those touristy things on our doorsteps. Sulgrave Manor fits this bill perfectly. If you went to school around here, it’s highly likely you went there on a trip or perhaps went to one of their Tudor experience days (it’s certainly worth making an effort for that!)

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

But Sulgrave is a bit unusual as it’s not a National Trust property. It has slightly odd ownership. Its own trust was formerly the American Peace Centenary Committee, set up in 1911 to commemorate the Treaty of Ghent which established peace between Britain and the USA in 1814.  So why did the Committee feel moved to purchase and preserve the manor?

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

When I was asked where we were getting married, my elevator-pitch for Sulgrave Manor was the fact that it once belonged to the ancestors of George Washington, first president of the United States. In fact, it was built by George’s fifth times great-grandfather – Lawrence Washington in mid-1500s. Inadvertently, our wedding had a bit of a Tudor theme, we had our pre-wedding shoot in Stratford upon Avon. Besides as an ex-Stratford Grammar School girl, we were brought up on a diet of all things Shakespeare and Tudor, so it was fitting really.  

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

Now if you’re a wedding guest, who joined in on the mid-evening tour of the house (every wedding should have a tour guide interval, in my personal opinion) reading this blog, you might wish to skim through to the actual pictures…

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

Our tour guide getting in her stride!

We actually exchanged our vows in the Great Hall built by Lawrence, who lived here with his wife and eleven children. All our guests cosied up on benches, and we signed the register on an ancient table – all we missed was a quill.  

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

The porch, where our guests dowsed us in confetti, and the Great Chamber, as well as two smaller rooms, were also part of the original building. In the 1700s as living accommodation felt tight a North Wing was added including the Oak Parlour and Great Kitchen, as well as the bedrooms.

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

 

The other thing we wanted the wedding to reflect was Tom’s horticultural passions, so as well as having tables named after winter plants, we had golden wellies and planted up spade signposts.  Sir Reginald Blomfield re-designed the gardens when the house was open to the public in the 1920s, including the topiary, hedges, orchards and herb garden. It all looked beautiful even in December.

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

That’s about where the Tudor influences stopped. We sat down to an almighty Italian wedding feast from Sara Chambers and her Squisto catering team.   

And no wedding blog post would be complete without a mention of the cake – we had a five-tier M’hencha stack, a traditional Moroccan pastry, supplied by The Cotswold M’hencha Company. Sophie Browne came down personally to arrange our cake (now that’s what I call special treatment). It was delicious and we still have the biggest layer in our freezer (no – I don’t intend on keeping it to the birth of our first child, that could be some way off!)

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

And all our pictures were taken by Sarah Ellen Bailey, can’t recommend her enough.

Sulgrave Manor Wedding

 

 

 

 

Sutra comes to Oxford Celebrating its tenth anniversary, one of Sadler’s Wells’ most successful productions, Sutra, arrived at Oxford’s New Theatre for two nights – one of two UK locations on its current international tour.

This is a collaboration between Belgian choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, whose 21 arresting wooden boxes dominate the stage. The stars of the show are certainly the 19 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Temple in China.

Sutra comes to Oxford

The 60-minute piece unfolds like a conversation between Ali Thabet’s narrator (that’s how I interpreted it anyway) and the Shaolin Kung Fu monks across a series of stanzas, with the youngest monk, aged about eight, acting as the punctuation.  The specially composed score by Szymon Brzóska lends the emotion, power and dictates the piece.

To begin Thabet and young monk crouch over a miniature version of the stage – 21 building blocks between them – almost godlike. The monks lying in the wooden crates slam their sides almost in rebellion – the young monk scampers off to join his fellow monks.

Sutra comes to Oxford

The cast form an array of extraordinary images, the boxes are both the springboard for impressive acrobatics and a burden to be moved. At one point they stacked like dominoes, each holding a monk, and knocked, crashing with an enormous thud (which caused me to shout in alarm.)  

Next, they open out like a lotus blossom, the youngest monk sat high above the others; in the next frame, each block acts as a wall shunning Thabet and only opening out for one of their own, the young monk.

Sutra has a number of meanings. It’s derived from a Pali word, ‘sutta, which is the collective term for the sermons of Buddha. In Hindi, sutras lay down the guidelines for proper conduct in life and in Sanskrit, it means string, thread or measure of straightness.  As Sanjoy Roy from the Guardian noted in his review in 2010, ‘the lesson of this powerful and poetic piece is that thread, ultimately, is you.’ Perhaps life is what we make it…

Sutra comes to Oxford

The monks performing in Sutra are from the original Shaolin Temple, situated near Dengfeng City in the Henan Province of China and established in 495AD by monks originating from India. In 1983, the State Council defined the Shaolin Temple as the key national Buddhist Temple. The monks follow a strict Buddhist doctrine, with kung fu and tai chi martial arts forming an integral part of their daily practice.

There are many martial arts schools that have also been set up in the region under the name of Shaolin, from which performers for many of the more commercial Shaolin Monk shows are drawn. The performers in Sutra, however, are all Buddhist Monks from the original temple itself.

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Sutra comes to the New Theatre, Oxford

 

Dalwhinnie Distillery

Whilst we were in the Highlands last Autumn, living out all my Outlander fantasies, Tom quickly adopted the very Scottish habit of taking ‘a wee dram’.  This was partly fuelled by our trip through the Cairngorm National Park, heading to the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery – the highest and coldest working distillery in Scotland.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

The distillery was first known first known as Strathspey in 1897 but the venture never really got off the ground. In 1898, the site was bought by A. P Blyth and renamed Dalwhinnie – which means ‘plain of meetings’ in Gaelic, as two old drove roads, which crossed the mountain ranges, met at this point.  In the late 1930s, the distillery suffered a fire and rebuilding was hampered severely by twenty-foot snow drifts. In fact, the Met. Office has declared Dalwhinnie as having the coldest average recorded temperature -6.0c – of any inhabited Scottish region.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

At 2000 ft above sea level, it is these extreme weather conditions and the water from Loch an Doire Uaine or ‘Loch of the green thicket’ that gives the distillery’s whisky a distinctive taste – described as ‘smooth, honey sweetness, aromatic with heather.’  Snowmelt and rainwater from the Drumochter Hills feeds the loch and Dalwhinnie has exclusive access to this water resource.

Dalwhinnie Distillery

There are over 126 whisky distilleries licensed to produce ‘Scotch’, so it can be difficult to pick one to visit. We chose Dalwhinnie partially for its scenic location in heart of the national park and also the style of whisky it distils.  It has the sweeter notes of Lowland style whiskies, combined with the smokiness of the Highland distilleries.  Tours last 45 minutes and include a range of tastings – Mum and I had ‘a wee dram’ alongside a strong hot chocolate.  

The Mountain Cafe, Aviemore

We weren’t really up for full-on hiking after our whisky tasting, but we were hungry. If you take a drive through the Cairngorms towards Aviemore, head to the Mountain Cafe. The restaurant is very much geared up to making sure that hikers, campers and climbers have their belly’s full before they set out on a full day’s activity. Run by a New Zealand chef, KJ, it has a whole menu of seafood chowder, burgers, salads and homemade cakes served in huge slabs.

Ruthven Barracks

Ruthven Barracks

Ruthven Barracks was one of four garrisons built by the British government after the Jacobite rebellion in 1715 – part of the Hanoverian scheme to take control of the Highlands. Ironically, the barracks were last occupied by some 3,000 Jacobite troops awaiting the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden.  When the Jacobites actually reached the barracks they received a message from the Prince saying that each man should save himself as best he could. Departing, the Jacobites set fire to the barracks and scattered across the Highlands. What you see today from the A9, is the charred skeleton of the barracks.

Ruthven Barracks

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