A couple of weeks ago I chatted about the inspiration behind my fantasy novel Erinsmore. How it was a trip to see The Lord of the Rings musical in the West End of London that sparked the idea that would sprout into my own epic fantasy tale. Since then, several of you have messaged me to say how much you enjoyed that memory, and did I have any more like it? Well, I do, so because I’m bored of talking about isolation and the current situation, I thought I’d take you all with me on a trip down memory lane.
When did my love of musicals begin? Well, it must have been when I was about 14 and went on a fabulous school trip to London. This was in 1981 and we all piled onto a coach very early one morning and went to London Zoo for the day. It was a zoo so it was great, although I had stupidly decided to wear new summer sandals that day without breaking them in first and by the end of the first hour walking around looking at all the animals, I was in real trouble. What we did about food I have no recollection, probably we’d been ordered to take pack up so we would have been carrying that around with us as well.
In the evening, we went to see the brand-new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical “Cats” which had only been open a few weeks but already had received rave reviews. How our drama teacher had managed to get us tickets, I have no idea. I do remember our seats were quite high up, but it didn’t matter, because the whole stage was spread out below us. None of us had ever been to a West End show before, so had no idea what to expect. Back in the late seventies/early eighties travelling all the way up to London to see a show was almost unheard of and was something other people did.
Anyway, there we all were, about 60 of us and several teachers, spread over several rows, fidgeting and whispering with excitement as the lights went down and it crashed into those opening bars of that now iconic music.
I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I’d begged to be allowed to go more for the zoo than for some strange show in the evening, and besides, by now my feet were just ten screaming blisters where my toes used to be and I had a strong suspicion when I took my socks off that night they’d be full of my own blood. But when that music started, I forgot everything and was instantly carried away to the back alleys and streets where the cats lived.
We were extremely fortunate, although we didn’t grasp it then, but the cast we saw were the original and the best, filled with stars and soon-to-be-stars, and it was extraordinary. How about this for a cast list – Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep, Sarah Brightman, Paul Nichols and Bonnie Langford.
Totally spellbound, we all sat glued to our seats bursting into wild applause at the end and jumping to our feet with excitement when a very familiar figure walked onto the stage carrying that famous red book. Yes, it was Eamon Andrews from This is Your Life, come to take Wayne Sleep straight away to film the show. It was the cherry on the top of an amazing cake and that was it. I was bitten by the West End bug that night and it’s never really left me.
Being only 14, living in a small town and always being permanently broke, I didn’t have another chance to take in a West End show for several years. Although I did see various other productions performed locally. Shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver Twist that deepened my love of the grand musical.
It wasn’t until I had left home and was earning my own money that I entered into a “show” period in my life, when I was going up to London to see a show at least once a year and sometimes more often. A local coach company offered very good deals on theatre excursions where you’d pay one price and get designated coach seats right to the theatre and back again, plus excellent seats at a London show – they could buy in bulk in advance so the seats were generally extremely good. Not having to worry about driving to London or trying to park was also a huge advantage. It meant that I and whoever I’d gone with could find a fabulous restaurant to have an amazingly long and boozy lunch in, then fall into the show secure in the knowledge that at the end of it the bus would be waiting outside for us. We generally did the matinee as it meant not such a late homecoming, especially if it was a work night.
I remember going to see The Lion King with my favourite cousin on one of those coach trips. We fell into a Loch Finn restaurant both starving hungry and ordered smoked salmon for starters and their huge sharing seafood platter between us for the main course. This thing was astonishing. A large, three-tiered metal contraption was placed on the table between us. The bottom tier simply held an empty bowl, for the rubbish, we were informed. The middle tier was a massive platter of chipped ice containing tiger prawns, cockles, mussels, razor clams, crab, lobster, crayfish, and edible seaweed. The top tier was a bowl containing hot mussels in a white wine and garlicky creamy sauce. All served with hot, salty, thick cut chips plus tons of bread and butter to mop it all up with, it was easily the most delicious thing we’d ever had, and we ate it all.
We’d gone into the restaurant at eleven and the matinee didn’t start until three, so we had plenty of time. Unlike all the others on the bus who’d travelled up with us, we had no desire to fight our way to Oxford Street to go shopping. No, food was much more important and such food! We ordered another bottle of wine. They cleared our table and we just chatted and drank and relaxed for a good hour before deciding we didn’t want dessert, but we would have cheese. So, we split a cheeseboard.
Another hour passed, we’d had coffee, and both used their facilities a couple of times. We still had ample time bearing in mind the theatre was next door and our seats were obviously pre-booked.
I think the staff had grown quite fond of these two funny, happy people who kept ordering wine and sat there as all the other lunchtime diners came and went. We still had 30 minutes to go when we waved them over and said that yes, actually we would like dessert now and the bill please. Finally, at 2:55pm, we staggered out of there and found our seats – third row from the stage, if you please – and settled back not knowing what to expect and wondering how much like the Disney film it would be. The answer was, just like it, but a hundred times better.
Have you ever seen the show live? If you get a chance to, then I highly recommend you do. It is astonishing. As we sat in our seats, only a little bit blurry around the edges from all that lunch, the lights went out, a giant sun arose over the back of the stage, and that all too familiar African cry resounded over the theatre. Gradually the sun came up and there were animals all around us. Monkeys climbing down from the boxes, birds flying overhead, jaguars prowling onto the stage, an elephant parading down the aisle. Of course, we knew they were humans dressed up and operating puppets, but it’s so cleverly done and so beautiful that you simply forget that and believe in what you are seeing.
I have since seen The Lion King again, this was in 2007. Miss F was about three years old, certainly pre-school age. I’d always said I would take her to see it when she was old enough to appreciate it, but then a rumour went around that it was closing. I panicked, I really wanted to take her, so I booked tickets and I and my friend Becky went up on a coach trip to London.
We found a lovely friendly Italian restaurant right next to the theatre where they made such a fuss of Miss F and had a nice lunch. Pasta was and still is her favourite food. Poor Becky had a mishap though when a big dollop of red pasta sauce escaped her fork and landed straight on her chest. Unluckily she was wearing a white silk polo neck sweater and it was pretty obvious, but she just laughed and arranged her scarf to cover the stain.
Sadly, our seats were nowhere near as good as my original ones, and we were way up in the gods so the whole opening scenes with all the animals were almost completely lost on Miss F, in fact the whole experience is one she barely has any memory of except eating pasta in a smart restaurant and Auntie Becky spilling her lunch down her white top.
Literally a month later, I was taken to London by friends for the weekend to see Phantom of the Opera – for full details of that trip please look at my blog from three weeks ago “Should Old Acquaintance be Forgot” where Becky and I reminisce all about that trip.
I have seen Phantom of the Opera three times now. The first time was in 1997 when I was taken as a birthday treat by my then husband. Our seats weren’t great, in fact, if I’d had a tin of paint I could have painted the theatre’s ceiling for them while I was up there, and it was a little hard to follow what was going on. The second time was for my 40th birthday when I went with three friends and our seats were in the third row from the stage and that was a whole different experience. Sitting there, my heart in my mouth, as the orchestra crashed into that iconic music and that huge crystal chandelier swung up inches over our heads, we all looked at each other in thrilled awe.
A funny thing happened in the interview though. We had booked ourselves a bottle of rose wine to share between the four of us. We all liked rose wine, and it was a lot cheaper to buy a bottle than buy four individual drinks. They told us that the bottle and four glasses would be on table one ready for us in the interval. This is standard practice in pretty much every theatre in the UK. So, the interval was coming up. Our seats were right by the door that led to the bar and the toilet area. The curtain swished down, two of our party were desperate for the loo and two of us could wait. So, the cross-legged pair hurtled off to be first in the queue for the ladies and myself and another friend legged it into the bar.
We were the first people in there. We spotted our bottle of rose and four glasses on table one, plonked ourselves down and dumped coats and bags on the other two seats to hold them for our friends. The plan being when they got back, we would then visit the ladies ourselves. We were sitting there chatting, when a very annoyed looking elderly lady approached us.
“Yes?” I said.
“I think you’ll find that’s ours!”
“I’m sorry? What?”
My friend and I looked at each other in horrified confusion. In our haste to get a drink, had we inadvertently grabbed somebody else’s? No, I pulled the slip of paper out from under the bottle.
“No, look, it definitely says Blake, this is definitely our bottle of wine.”
“Not the wine! The table!”
Now we really were confused.
“The table? What do you mean the table is yours?”
“Well, when we ordered our drinks, they told us they’d leave them on table one for us, and look…” she gestured to a collection of drinks that were also standing on the table. “There are our drinks, on our table, that you are sitting at, So, move please!”
I stared at her, unable to believe her arrogant rudeness. Normally, in a situation like this, I would have been polite. But what the hell? I smiled, patronisingly.
“Oh dear,” I purred. “First time at a theatre is it? They merely meant your drinks would be left on the table, not that the table was reserved for you. There simply aren’t enough tables for everyone in the theatre so it really is a case of first come, first served.”
I paused and took a sip of my wine.
“And in this case, we’re younger and had quicker legs, so the table is ours.”
“Yeah,” drawled my friend. “Nice try, love.”
The woman turned a very unattractive shade of puce and hastily gathered up her drinks and scuttled off back to her friends, who then proceeded to spend the rest of the interval staring daggers at us.
My third visit to the show was much later in about 2013/2014 when my mother gave myself and my then sister-in-law tickets to take Miss F and my niece to see the show, plus enough lunch vouchers for a slap up meal at Bella Italia. Again, we had brilliant seats and a great time was had by everyone.
You’d think that Phantom of the Opera would be my favourite musical, you’d think wrong. My absolute favourite is Les Miserables. I don’t know why, but something about that musical reduces me to tears and stirs my heart. I first went to see it in 1996 with my new boyfriend who would later become my husband. My favourite cousin had bought tickets to see the show, together with an early bird dinner at a nearby restaurant to treat her then boyfriend for his birthday. Only, he somehow became not her boyfriend a couple of weeks before the birthday, so she was stuck with the tickets. I offered to buy them off her, not making the connection with the date. I was at college at the time taking two A’Levels and one of my exams was on the same day. The exam finished at 4:00pm in Suffolk. The table was booked for 6:00pm in the West End. Could it be done? My boyfriend was waiting outside the college with his engine running by 3:50pm. I’d explained to the examiner what was happening, and she’d said I could leave as soon as I’d completed the exam, so long as I turned my paper over on my desk and left as quietly as possible.
By 3:50pm I was in the car and we were on our way to London. Managing to struggle out of jeans and a jumper and into a smart dress, and tights, in the front of a fast moving car is no mean feat, but I managed it, and freshened up my make-up and redid my hair. We made it with two minutes to spare and had a lovely dinner before hurrying to the theatre to find our seats. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I’d bought the tickets off my cousin to help her out of a financial sticky situation, so this was very much unplanned and “off map”.
I loved the show. Anyone who’s seen it will know how breathtakingly good, it is, the scenery, the music, the singing are all stunning, and the story of course is rip your heart out and stomp on it sad from beginning to end.
Since then, I have seen it again with my then sister-in-law back in probably 2008, or something like that. She loved it as well, and I know in turn took her mother to see it at least once.
Then there is Chicago. Now this I’ve seen three times in all. Once in my little local theatre, once in the much bigger Norwich Theatre Royal and once in the West End. But do you know, the version that is my favourite is believe it or not, the version I saw in my local theatre. One of my friends was a student and was registered with the student saver scheme at the theatre. This is where students can phone up the theatre literally an hour before that evening’s performance and if there are any tickets left, can buy them at half price so long as they are registered on the scheme and can produce a valid student card.
She’d been round mine for lunch and was talking about this scheme and the things she’d seen, and how great it was that she sometimes went to see things you would never in a million years have normally watched, but had thoroughly enjoyed. Well, by this point we’d had a bottle of wine and it was decided that she’d call the theatre and see what was on that evening and if she could get a pair of tickets, Duly she called them, something called Chicago was on. She looked at me and I shrugged my shoulders. I’d never heard of it, but I was up for anything – this was obviously long before the arrival of Miss F when spontaneous evenings out were still something I could do.
She reserved the tickets and we went. It was amazing. They were a professional touring theatre company who were all incredibly talented. They could all act, sing, dance and play a multiple of instruments – all at the same time. Our seats were in a box right in front of the stage and we loved it. There was something about being right there, almost in the middle of the show, that made it intensely exciting.
Some years later I bought tickets to go and see the show in the West End as a surprise birthday present for my husband. He had no idea we were going to London that day when I handed him an envelope with his birthday breakfast, and an hour later we were on our way to the capital. The show was marvellous, of course it was, it’s a great extravaganza and the music is memorable, but… I must be honest here, it wasn’t as good as the production I’d seen at my local theatre five years earlier.
The last occasion I saw Chicago was about 2010 when I went to Norwich to see it with my sister-in-law. Again, a great performance which we both really enjoyed, but again, it still wasn’t as good as the first time I’d seen it performed.
Another musical I really enjoyed was Chess, although I never got to see that in the West End, but instead saw it in the Theatre Royal in York where I was on a weekend jolly with my favourite cousin. We hadn’t particularly wanted to see Chess, but it happened to be on the weekend we were in York, so we bought tickets and went to see it. It’s a good fun musical, if a little confusing, and I defy anyone to listen to One Night in Bangkok without wanting to sing along.
During this same period, I went to see Riverdance twice. Originally taking a friend to see it as a birthday treat, we loved it so much we then arranged for a large party of us to go back a few months later and see it. Looking back, I wonder that we all had the time not to mention the money, to take such regular trips to London for shows. Even back then you would still expect to pay £50 or even more for the coach and theatre ticket. But then, we were young so had boundless energy and could laugh at the thought of late to bed on a work night, none of us were married or had children so could go where we wanted without worrying about babysitters or getting back for school runs.
Also, life wasn’t so expensive back then. Utilities and food were cheaper and as these were the days before mobile phones, WiFi and things like Netflix and Amazon Prime, we did seem to have more money to spend on ourselves. We were a big group of friends who really enjoyed spending time together and having fun. Anyone who has read my novel Becoming Lili may be thinking that this sounds familiar and you’d be right. Lili and her gang of friends are very much based on the wonderful group I used to hang with back then.
As a birthday treat for me one year, my then husband bought tickets to take me to see Mamma Mia which had just opened in the West End. We went with one of his work colleagues and his wife, who was a real pain in the bum. Now, as you’ve probably gathered by now, a nice lunch or dinner somewhere is always part of a trip to London. ALWAYS. And it was my birthday, so, surely, my wishes should have been considered. Oh no, turns out his wife had this peculiar eating thing where she took dislikes to the look of a restaurant and flatly refused to even consider eating in it. Okay, fine, if she’d done it to just one or two restaurants. But she did it to every single restaurant we saw! Every. Fricking. One.
I was getting annoyed and somewhat desperate. I was starving hungry. It was my birthday and time was ticking on. We had one hour left before curtain-up, we were on the opposite side of London from the theatre so still had to get there. I’d been promised champagne with my lunch, but that was looking less and less likely to happen.
I shot my husband a look that quite plainly let him know what I thought of the situation, which I think his colleague saw, because he suddenly told his wife they were going to go to the theatre and she’d bloody well eat at the first restaurant we saw close by. But of course, it took us ages to get there leaving us no time to eat in a proper restaurant, so we ended up having a hasty meal in a McDonalds. A McDonalds? For my birthday. Took me a while to forgive my husband for that one, although to be fair to him he had no idea the wife was going to be like that.
I don’t know whether this experience coloured my opinion of the show, after all, sitting there still hungry, no champagne, stone cold sober on my birthday, suffering from indigestion and not particularly keen on the company I was with, would have left me justifiably in a bad mood. But I really didn’t rate the stage show that much. Since then, of course, the film has been made and that I really did enjoy.
Other shows I’ve seen in London include Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Woman in White. All very enjoyable shows, but The Woman in White was a strange one. Now, I’ve read the classic novel by Wilkie Collins several times, and have seen various TV adaptations so I know the story really well, which is just as well. My then sister-in-law was also a big fan of the story, so when we saw our local coach company were doing an excursion to see the newly opened West End version of it, we were both very keen to go.
I remember it was a gorgeous sunny day, we found a beautiful Italian restaurant a short walk from the theatre that had large windows open onto the street. We were there just on midday so had the pick of the tables and chose a lovely one in the window where we could chill, drink wine, enjoy a wonderful lunch and watch London saunter by in the hot sun.
We went to see the show, our seats were two rows back in the dress circle, so not bad. An elderly couple I recognised from the coach sat beside us, and as soon as the lights went down, they proceeded to unpack an entire lunch from lots of plastic bags and Tupperware boxes. I’m not kidding, and we are not talking about a couple of sandwiches consumed stealthily here, we’re talking boiled eggs and ham, crunchy celery and egg salad, tomatoes – which spluttered onto my bare arm when she tried to slice them. Even packets of crisps which they noisily crunched their way through. All topped off with a thermos of tea.
Completely oblivious to the incredulous stares of everyone around them, they merrily chomped down their lunch, while the rest of us tried to focus on the show. Lunch finally over, she packed it all away into the bags with much clicking back on of lids, then decided that all that food had made her hot and fished one of those mini, handheld, battery operated fans out of her bag.
By now, I was engrossed in the show and only vaguely aware of the annoying old couple next to me, until she decided I looked hot and shoved the fan in my face. Shocked, I jerked back, and the bloody thing tangled in my hair.
After the interval, when I’d had a stiff drink to fortify me against whatever shenanigans they’d get up to in the second half – pudding, maybe a hot and steaming apple pie and custard would come out of those bottomless bags – but I needn’t have worried. After all, they were elderly and had had a lovely big lunch so were a bit sleepy. They fell asleep as soon as the curtain went up on the second half and gently snored their way through the rest of the show until the sounds of applause awoke them from their slumber. With the coach and show tickets coming in at £50 each, that was a very expensive nap!
I’ve just noticed from the word count at the bottom of the page that I’ve been rambling on for over 4000 words. Oops, but once I get started down memory lane it’s kind of hard for me to stop. I really hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me and that you’ll join me again next week on A Little Bit of Blake. In the meantime – stay home, stay safe, stay well.