Cilla The Musical at New TheatreThis week we went to see Cilla The Musical at the New Theatre in Oxford, the musical adaptation of the critically acclaimed ITV mini-series based on the life of the Liverpudlian legend, Cilla Black, written by Jeff Pope.

Apart from the amazing soundtrack, filled with Cilla’s greatest numbers and classic rock n’ roll, it’s the cast that makes the production.  The cast stars Kara Lily Hayworth in the title role – in fact, her first leading role in musical.  

Cilla The Musical at New Theatre

At the end of the first act, I honestly thought Kara was going to explode as the wall of sound crescendoed from her tiny frame reaching the climax ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’.   

According to the press release, Kara queued for four hours at London’s Dominion Theatre to have her chance to audition in the first rounds. She made it through to the final 30 before being chosen to do her final audition at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

Cilla The Musical at New Theatre

Robert Willis, executive producer and Cilla’s son, said: We wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit. Kara came in with her huge personality and amazing voice – when I saw the response of the audience at the Cavern, I knew we’d found her!”

It was clear that just like her lead character, Kara was quite adored by her fellow cast – there was lots of doffing of fictional caps and insistence of extra bows – especially by Andrew Lancel (Coronation Street and Bad Girls) as Brian Epstein and Carl Au as Bobby.

Both mum and I felt that the star of the show was Carl Au as Bobby. Helped by his natural Liverpudlian tones, Mum, an avid Cilla fan, reckoned that Carl captured the character of Bobby beautifully. Looking at Carl’s ‘Spotlight’ profile his training is extensive – ballad, ballet, baritone, choreography, contemporary dance, jazz dancing and jazz singing!

Cilla The Musical at New Theatre

Cilla The Musical tells the story of a Liverpool girl, with a talented voice and a legendary introduction by John Lennon to Brian Epstein, kickstarting a career that lasted decades. We felt that even the group playing the Beatles caught many of their band’s mannerisms – I did wonder if they were a tribute band? I hope they won’t be insulted by that speculation.

You can catch Cilla on tour in Bristol, Woking and Aylesbury. For tickets, visit http://tidd.ly/f9664e36

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Cilla The Musical at New Theatre

We enjoyed an early Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel, in Herefordshire, the gateway to the Wye Valley.

Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel

The current house, also known as Pengethley Manor, was built in 1818 by the Symonds Family on the site of a former Tudor estate, which was owned by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. The original house was largely destroyed in a fire in 1818, except the wood panelling now used in the hotel’s reception hall.

Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel

The house stood at the centre of a 100-acre estate and for 360 years belonged to the Powell Symonds family, until the death of Caroline Symonds in 1947, when it turned into a hotel. Pengethley Park is now owned by the National Trust. And since it became a hotel, it’s seen a host of famous guests – Sir David Attenborough for starts.

Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel

On arrival we were greeted with a bottle of bubbly on ice, strawberries and that classic Valentine red rose. Brook’s are currently doing a valentines offer (£130 per night for two sharing) with a three course dinner with your stay and for a super cosy experience, try one of their converted horseboxes.

Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel

Here’s what we had for dinner. To start mushroom and Gruyère crepes; mains beef bourguignon and French onion tart; and for dessert chocolate and salted caramel tart and poached pear with vanilla pannacotta. If we’d had more time, we’d have definitely had a dip in the wood-fired tub.

Valentines at Brooks Country House Hotel

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Our stay was complimentary and thanks to the team at Brooks for looking after us. 

Dinner at Djemma el-FnaIn the shadow of Koutoubia Mosque, the minaret you see on the front of every guidebook, is the Djemma el-Fna, Marrakesh’s chaotic hub. In the morning, the square is lined with vendors selling freshly squeezed orange juice at just four dirhams a glass.  

Henna artists set up makeshift stalls under shades and proffer laminated cards showcasing a range of designs which can adorn any limb you desire. Similarly, as lunch rolls around the street performers set up shows – ranging from snake charmers, dancing monkeys to acrobats. I’m not sure their animal welfare is quite what we are used to.  

Dinner at Djemma el-Fna

But the djemma really gets going once dusk sets in and chefs set up their temporary kitchens, with food stalls serving an array of tajines, grilled meats, couscous and fresh veg. For the more adventurous there’s snail soup or sheep’s brain. At first, it is as my Mum described, a bit like a gauntlet run.

Dinner at Djemma el-Fna

Dinner at Djemma el-Fna

As soon as you step out of the taxi onto the square, it is an assault on the senses wafts of grilled meats and noisy. You are inundated with menu offers from many sellers using their best English phrases, you’ll certainly hear yells of ‘lovely jubbly’ and ‘see you later alligator’ called in your wake. Tom and I picked a stall whose tables were filled with families and friends chowing down.

Dinner at Djemma el-Fna

Sat on long trestle tables with plastic tablecloths, each place is denoted by disc-shaped khboz, a Moroccan white bread, which you can snack on at one dirham a piece. We dipped our khboz in harissa paste, a salted lemony chilli dip; and between us we had several different brochettes, or kebabs – chicken, pork, lamb; as well as Moroccan salads, grilled aubergine and chopped tomato; and plates of vegetable tagine and couscous.

Dinner at Djemma el-Fna

Now dessert was interesting – a poulet pastille – shredded chicken wrapped in thin pastry and dipped in sugar and coconut. A bit like a chicken-stuffed peshwari naan.

Morrocan food has a special place in our hearts – on our third date Tom made me a lush lamb tagine (clearly out to impress) and we did not having a traditional wedding cake, but a five-tier M’Hencha, called after its serpent-like shape. So we fully intended to eat our way through Marrakesh – one tagine at a time.

 

This weekend we headed to the big smoke to celebrate Tom’s Mum’s birthday at Pollen Street Social. My ‘in-laws’ have been proper converts to Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social for some time and we were excited to try it!

With one Michelin star, it describes itself as a modern-day meeting point. A place to eat, drink, socialize, both for special occasions and for informal everyday affairs. It couldn’t be more accurately described.  Our party was celebrating a sixtieth, whilst the table next door, a lone diner tucked into his taster menu.

Pollen Street Social set menu

It has an easy atmosphere just with excellent service – The Good Food Guide awards it 9/10. Really it’s just the service which would be nice everywhere, especially in places which prize their gastro essentials. The wine sommelier was knowledgeable in a non-overbearing way – his father grows one of the wines on the menu, and very nice it is too. Ask the sommelier, he’ll point you in the right direction.

Pollen Street Social set menu

Pollen Street Social Set menu

The set lunch menu at £37 a head is a good way of having a Michelin starred three-course meal at a reasonable price. Here’s what a few of us had….

Pollen Street Social set menu

Starters:

Woodland mushroom rice, aged parmesan, braised white kombu & scallions

Pollen Street Social set menu

Pressed terrine of Guinea fowl & smoked pork knuckle, port & bacon jam, root vegetables

Mains:

Breast of pheasant from the Borders, almond & pistachio crumb, turnip braised in orange, quince & pommegranité

Pollen Street Social set menu

Braised West Country ox cheek, celeriac, parsley & anchovy purée, bone marrow crumb

Roasted Cornish cod, St Austell Bay mussels, parsley & seaweed broth, parsnip

Pollen Street Social set menu

Provence is important to the team at Pollen Street and source best produce from across the British Isles. They are also keen on seasonality and food miles – the amazing butter is from Gloucestershire – 710 miles away.

Desserts:

Forced Yorkshire rhubarb, crème fraiche mousse & rose petal

Bread and butter pudding ice cream, blackberries & Ardbeg whiskey

Bar Americana

If you’re looking for a boozy filled itinerary for the rest of the afternoon, I’m going to share another one of my ‘in-laws’ good finds – Bar Americana. As they said, don’t be fooled by the outside of Brasserie Zedel home to the classic American bar, serving traditional mixed drinks ‘in the most glamorous, authentic Art Deco surroundings’ as Time Out puts it.

Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo

Nicely sozzled and several PIna Coladas down we headed to Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo at the Royal Albert Hall. This year’s circus – the Cirque’s 25th show – opens up the world under our feet, of insects and all creatures great and small. It’s an easy theme to get into with the Brazilian soundtrack and exotic costumes. A party of ants expertly truss life-size kiwi slices with their feet whilst two butterfly acrobats swoop across the audience. It’s certainly eye-popping!

Pollen Street Social set menu

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Pollen Street Social

souq shopping in marrakesh

In amongst some Cotswolds trips, I’ve got a few posts about our trips last Autumn which I wrote before we got married and never quite got round to posting. So here’s one from Marrakesh…

We dedicated a whole day to wandering around Marrakesh’s souqs – it is inevitable that you will get lost in the back streets and alleyways that criss-cross the medina. Qissaria are the smaller streets that link souqs and often remain nameless, they’re filled with storerooms and artisanal cubby holes. Amongst the qissariat, you will lose your sense of direction, but will always reach a main souk eventually.

souq shopping in marrakesh

It is quite difficult to walk through the souks, without engaging with every shop owner, who will attempt to entice you in with a cheery hello in about ten different languages. I can’t begin to describe the route we took, but it’s easy to become absorbed in the hustle.

My dad’s attention was caught by a true artisan, carving chess pieces out of lemon wood using a bow lathe surrounded by ebony chess boards spilling out onto the street from the shop behind. Pictures of the craftsmen meeting Morocco’s royalty and official artisan government certificates hung proudly on the wall and his son bartered with my dad over a chessboard, an intricate puzzle box and a finely inlaid wood tray, all made by the shop owner who had started his training aged eight. Dad promised to return for a chess match – that is, if we could ever find the shop again.

souq shopping in marrakesh

Outside the shop the alleyway was no wider than a large kitchen table and I watched a donkey pulling a year’s worth of pomegranates trotting by; a car squeezing down the road; and a group of kids who received a clout round the head for dropping the leaves of a piece of fruit he was eating outside a shop owner’s doorstep.  Life in this part of Marrakesh felt very ancient indeed.

The souks business model was quite fascinating and are grouped by product. So the babouches souk is filled with stalls selling rows of brightly coloured leather slippers, so many it overwhelms the eye. The spice souk is the same with piles of turmeric, cumin and salt piled high and pinches of valuable saffron stored in exotic jars. Who buys spices in such quantities? Even if every tourist took home a kilo of cumin at a time, there’d still be enough to feed the country.

Ali ben Youssef Medersa

In all the craziness, lies the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, founded in the 14th century by the Merenid dynasty. It was the Saadien sultan’s, who never afraid of a building project richly decorated this learning institution. It was once the largest Quranic learning centre in North Africa, it is today one of the best examples of the Islamic arts.

souq shopping in marrakesh

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Up to 900 students would come here to study religious texts and would be inspired by the courtyards majestic decor, with Hispano-Moorish ornamentation, including zellij – ceramic tile mosaics. Here students would have spent their day bowing their heads over legal edicts and Quranic verses, before heading to the distinctly stark and poky dormitories, where each stark room had one small window glimpsing the luxurious courtyard below.