Wilton’s Music Hall: Head East for Entertainment

Looking for an evening’s entertainment or a quirky cocktail? Look no further.Tucked away between Tower Hill and Aldgate Stations is a hidden gem of an establishment: introducing Wilton’s Music Hall.

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If you think that all of the city’s best theatres and show venues are in the West End, think again. Despite the majority of musicals centring around Soho and Covent Garden, and perhaps the more ‘serious’ plays taking place at the National or the Globe, there are plenty more hidden away, off-West End performances that are equally, if not more, mind-blowing. If you look hard enough, a short walk from the Tower of London will show you one such place: Wilton’s.

For a spectacular venue that, yes, may lack the light up signs and the overpriced merchandise that is synonymous with London shows these days, the unique Wilton’s Music Hall is definitely worth a visit. Having started out in 1839, this Grade 2 Star listed building is still going strong today after some recent renovation, and as one of the oldest grand music halls in the world, hosts a variety of top-class acts and entertainment.

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On first glance (when you have finally located the place having walked down several side streets), Wilton’s may not strike you as a fabulous night out. But step inside, and you could be mistaken to think you have been transported back to the era of music halls and gin dens. Low lighting, subdued hues and cosy décor meets a thoroughly relaxed vibes to create one of London’s best-kept secrets.

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The Mahogany Bar and upstairs Cocktail Bar serve up some exceptional and inventive cocktails amongst the usual beers, wines and softies for the drivers. Hearty pre-show food, courtesy of The Gatherer’s, is available, with local Brick Lane Beigels and the likes of chicken scratchings on the menu.

Recently, I was lucky enough to see one of the stunning performances that Wilton’s hosts – this one was a play cum cabaret cum musical and was gripping from start to finish. Titled ‘City Stories’, the show told four individual love stories set at different points in time, but all based in our beloved London. Exceptional music accompanied the drama thanks to one (very talented) woman and her piano, who also happened to have written the score.

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This, alas was only a two-night affair, but the constantly changing  programme of events is just why Wilton’s is so fantastic. From jazz bands to plays, cabarets to comedy, the variety in entertainment coupled with its one-of-a-kind atmosphere makes Wilton’s Music Hall the ultimate fusion of venue, entertainment, drinks and history.

ENO’s La Bohème: A Modern Bohemian Rhapsody

enoLa Bohème at the London Coliseum

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‘We have, I am afraid to say, come across one of those technical difficulties that happen every so often in performances: we have a piece of scenery that is supposed to rotate, and due to power faults, it’s simply not rotating. But rather than exclude this part from our dress rehearsal, we have come up with a solution – we will rotate the set manually.’

So said the director of the ENO mid-way through La Bohème’s dress rehearsal last night at the London Coliseum. The second half thus opened with members of the cast, and a few helping hands from behind the scenes, pushing what looked like a very heavy piece of set so it rotated. Obviously, were it to do this of its own accord –aka fuelled by electricity rather than people power – it would have been a spectacle. The sight of a few opera singers making some substantial scenery spin, however, was priceless.

Attending a dress rehearsal of any kind comes with the possibility that things could go wrong – after all, a major aim of these runs are to make sure everything is going smoothly ready for the opening night. But despite this minor glitch, ENO’s latest production of La Bohème was a resounding success.

The production has an almost Shoreditch vibe: a warehouse style apartment which houses several creatives is the basis for the opera’s development. Lacking enough cash to keep warm (cue setting alight to the writer’s scripts) and pay rent (cue getting the landlord very drunk), the men in question muddle through on a chilly Christmas eve before braving the cold and venturing into town for a celebratory meal. Enter Mimi, the beautiful, if slightly sick, neighbour, and the start of the love story.

Far be it for me to begin to imagine what Puccini intended with his 1890’s opera, but I’m pretty sure that heroine injections, shopping trollies loaded with Tesco goods, and helium balloons didn’t feature. They do, however, make a successful appearance in this new interpretation; bringing the production right up to date and appealing to a slightly younger and arguably more ‘hipster’ audience.

As would be expected with a Puccini opera, the music is exquisite. This is the sort of music you’ll be humming on the tube home, and the accompanying translations were, on occasion, unforgettable (look out for the landlord’s ‘I’m sixty and sexy’). Walking out of the Coliseum after this show, I felt like I’d simultaneously been to a classical music concert, watched a dramatic soap on TV, attended a cinema screening of the latest tragic film, and admired a moving and atmospheric art installation. In short – this is value for money. This modern performance turns expectations of Puccini on their head, and I urge even avid opera-avoiders to watch this fantastic production (Shoreditch hipsters included).

https://www.eno.org/

London in a Day

Only got one day in the big bad city? Don’t waste it getting mowed down by school trips and tourists, seeing the obvious attractions (that you’ve probably seen before) or being disappointed by mediocre meals. Check out my suggestions for when time is tight…

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24 Hours in London

London is about far more than Big Ben, the London Eye, M+M world and Piccadilly Circus. Away from the black cabs and tourist traps, avoiding the Steakhouses and Starbucks that litter the streets, there is a London with quirky cafes, hidden museums, historical pubs and scintillating stories. But is it possible to get a taste of this underground-London in only 24 hours?

A sensible starting place would be Liverpool Street; a perfect doorway to the city. Begin with a hearty breakfast at the Bishopsgate Kitchen (if chorizo hash or eggs Benedict appeals), people-watch by way of the café’s glass front , and pick from a selection of teas to set you up for the day ahead. Old Spitalfields, which is right outside, is a haven of crafts and creatives; depending on the day, this could be the home of a rotating flea market, vintage record sale, or art stalls. For a peek at Hipster Central, take a nose up Brick Lane, and try on a couple of 70’s outfits in Rokit if you’re feeling brave.

A tube journey to Charing Cross will site you in the perfect location for a free lunchtime concert at St Martins in the Fields, where a spot of classical tunage will add some cultural scope to your day. Heading up to Covent Garden from here is a short walk, and allows you to take in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the ever-changing Fourth Plinth. The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a chance to absorb a variety artwork without trekking around the entire place if time is tight. By this time, I imagine a nibble might be in order: sample an array of salads, divine cakes and bakes (ginger and salted caramel loaf, anyone?) proper coffee and friendly staff at Black Penny Café to fuel you up for further exploring.

Explorers keen on bizarre Korean and Japanese nik-naks should have a deco in Artbox, a crazy stationary shop off Neal’s Yard where you can buy a notebook unlike any other to jot down your memories of the day. At Holborn, step back in time with a trip to Sir John Soane’s Museum (free), where worldly treasures and an insanely cool picture room (authentic Hogarths, and opening walls) is enough to make you feel as if you are in a novel. The first Tuesday of each month offers an evening candlelit tour of the place, which, trust me, is definitely worth a half hour queue (and surely queueing is part of the London initiation?)

A swift pint in The Princess Louise, a pub with nooks and crannies that are ever appearing provides the ideal precursor to an imaginative cocktail at Merchant House, where jazz music and a speakeasy feel accompany concoctions featuring everything from chamomile tea to chocolate bitters. Sit back in the vintage Chesterfield sofas, soak up the Mad Men vibe: exhausted, satisfied, enlightened and enthused, you’ll wish you had more than a day to spend in the Capital of Capitals.