I’d not seen any other productions of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, so I was excited to hear that Joesph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat would be in Oxford this week, with Jaymi Hensley, from the band Union J, in the lead role. 

Press night also coincided with the launch of the theatre’s revamped Balcony Bar, now christened the Wonder Bar and now sports a fetching, Oxford appropriate Alice in Wonderland theme. It’s been nicely done with the odd teacup and playing card detail, but still with comfy seating – it’s worth visiting especially if you’re early for a performance. Although be warned, you’ll have to climb the three sets of stairs. 

We went enmass with my parents and Tom’s Mum also joining us for Joseph. Of all of us, Tom’s mum had seen Jason Donovan in the lead role back in the day and was the most familiar with the musical. Although I think everyone did the ‘aaaaaahhh’ bit as part of a school choir during ‘Any Dream Will Do’.  Also the school choir during this performance was great.

I think it was fair to say that this production was more ‘reimagined’ than we’d expected. Joseph and his brothers were suitably clad as you would expect for biblical figures, like better versions of the shepherds from any school nativity.  And there was a distinct Egyptian vibe, but more The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas. 

A lot of the numbers had added extras too –  the classic Poor Poor Joseph had the brothers’ don stetsons for a wild west beat, whilst during the brothers’ later repent, they wore Mexican-theme costumes for ‘Benjamin Calypso’. And lastly, Pharaoh (played by Andrew Geator) emerged as the King, as in Elvis, with a rhinestone enhanced jumpsuit, but with Cleopatra eye makeup. 

For me, the best bit was Jaymi’s rendition of ‘Close Every Door to Me’, it was heartfelt and had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.  The cast were all very good with excellent voices and super dance numbers. All in all, it was an extremely jolly performance, a bit panto-esque, but the audience was all on board, including us, once we got over the shock of Elvis appearing in biblical Egypt.

Joseph is playing at the New Theatre until Saturday 20th July 2019.

Have you seen the film Papillon? Either the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman classic or the 2018 remake? It’s about a serial thief who is sent to the French penal colony on Îles du Salut, off the coast of French Guiana, adapted from the memoirs of real-life inmate Henri-Charriere. 

One day exploring Îles du Salut, French Guiana

There are in fact three islands, to the ironically called, Salvation Islands. The largest is Ile Royale, and is not often visited, except by cruise ships and Saint Joseph Island and Devil’s Island (Îles du Salut) which are completely barred from tourists.   We spent the day exploring Ile Royale as part of our voyage onboard the Viking Sea.

French Guiana was the only South American colony for France. The French were looking for gold like everyone else, but all that they found on these islands was jungle and malaria. 

French Emperor Napoleon III deemed that the best use for the islands was as a place of exile for political prisoners. Napoleon realised that his government was housing 6,000 political prisoners in disease-ridden floating jails. Rather than spoil the view for Parisians, he had the prisoners sent to Guiana.  And from 1852, the islands became one of the most notorious prisons in history. 

Often people who were transported here, never returned and even if they lived to see the end of their sentence, they didn’t have the funds to return to France, so worked out their days on the island.  As a prison, life was pretty desolate. The islands were used as a prison until after WWII in 1947 and some 70,000 prisoners stayed on the island across its life span, issued with red striped shorts and a straw hat. Now it is abandoned, looked after by the French National Trust. 

Saint Joseph Island was considered the worst prison, home to solitary confinement, where prisoners were not allowed to speak for years at a time and were often driven insane.  Devil’s Island itself, a tree covered rock and a former leper colony, was home to the most notorious criminals and is completely off-limits today. It’s estimated that there were 50,000 escape attempts from the prison as a whole. Most were failures. 

We caught the tender boats from the Viking Sea ashore and were able to explore Ile Royale on foot independently. The island was home to the prison guards’ quarters, who lived here with their wives and children; the hospital; the warden’s house; office; plus the guard’s mess hall.  

Our walk around the island starts with Musée du Bagne, in the former Director’s home which has lots of information about life in the prison. From here we walked upward, there’s both a set of steep steps which are slippery when wet, or you can make your way up the sloping roadway to the top. 

At the summit, the prison buildings are spread out around the perimeter of a large grassy courtyard. We headed first for the prison’s chapel built by hand by the prisoners around 1855. Inside the wooden church, we could just see from the closed gates at the entrance,  the murals painted by convict forger, Francis Lagrange or ‘Flag’. He painted daily life, escapism and even erotica on the wall, and kept up the forgery on behalf of requests from prison officers. 

Following the church, the hospital is the largest building on the island and was designed for military personnel stationed on the island rather than the prisoners. Occasionally wealthy citizens from the mainland would come to the hospital to convalesce – heaven knows why? The lighthouse, now automatic, was once operated by a convicted mechanic.  

Saint Joseph Island housed most of the prisoners in solitary confinement, but there was a cell block dedicated solitary on Ile Royale.  Here they lived on a diet of bread and soup every three days and some remained in solitary for years; each cell not much wider than the width of two outstretched arms. 

There were not many other tourists the day we visited, principally just passengers from the Viking Sea and there are not many people actually on the island – mainly the staff running the guesthouse and some gendarmes now stationed in the guard’s quarters. I read after that the islands are in the pathway of a nearby rocket path and gendarmes are principally in charge of ensuring that the island is evacuated when a launch is expected. 

The mess hall now houses a small guesthouse, restaurant, and shop. It’s big enough for a rest stop, but I’m not sure if it is the sort of place I would want to stay.  A lot of buildings are crumbling, home to monkeys and the jungle clawing its way back in. It’s an interesting place, but you wouldn’t want to get left behind.

Hands up who else has had the joy of the summer-time cold? So with that, my deputised Musical reviewer, aka Mum, went with her cronies to see Hair the musical, which was on tour and visiting Oxford this week. From here it heads to Sheffield, Brighton and is back in the area in Milton Keynes from 15th to 20th July 2019. 

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Hair is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the current version stars  Dancing on Ice Winner Jake Quickenden, Daisy Wood-Davis (Hollyoaks/ Dreamboats & Petticoats) and Marcus Collins (X-Factor Finalist/ Kinky Boots).

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Set in 1967, Hair features a tribe of communal-living hippies from East Village, New York who are looking to change the world one peace love symbol at a time. Claude, one of the main protagonists, faces a battle between his life characterised by the pursuit of love, peace, long-hair and sexual revolution and his family’s urge for him to join the forces and fight in Vietnam. 

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

I was disappointed that I wasn’t feeling up to see Hair. It’s a production that has gone out of its way to push people’s buttons and push the boundaries on what they could sing and gesticulate about on stage. 

The original performance effectively marked the end of stage censorship in the United Kingdom which finally came to an end in July 1968. In fact in London, the Lord Chamberlain, originally refused to license the musical and the opening was delayed until Parliament passed a bill stripping him of his licensing powers.  

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Before 1968 any reference to homosexuality, bisexuality, nude performances would have been considered to outrageous to be shown on British stage. 

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Hair was widely divisive – in April 1971 a bomb was thrown at the theatre housing the production in Cleveland, Ohio; the musical aired one-night at a theatre in Mexico before being padlocked by the government on the grounds that is was detrimental to the morals of youth (probably due to Hair’s famous nude scene); and in Bergen, Norway citizens created a human barricade preventing theatregoers from getting in.  

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

On the other hand, Princess Anne, aged 18, headed up on the stage during the London performance in 1968.  (Always did like her!) 

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

My mum was impressed with the stage set and the solo voices of all the cast, who gave gutsy performances of the well-known rock tunes including ‘Aquarius’, ‘Let the Sun Shine In’, ‘I Got Life’ and ‘Good Morning Starshine’.   It’s certainly one to look out for on tour. 

The original  musical is written by Gerome Ragni (book and lyrics), James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music). 

HAIR THE MUSICAL, , Director – Jonathan O’Boyle, Lighting – Bem M Rogers, Choreographer – William Whelton, Designer – Maeve Black, New Wimbledon Theatre, London, UK, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

The 50th anniversary production is directed by Jonathan O’Boyle (Pippin, Rain Man, Aspects Of Love), who is reunited with the brilliant creative team from Hope Mill Theatre: Gareth Bretherton (Musical Director), William Whelton (Choreographer), Maeve Black (Designer), Ben M Rogers (Lighting Designer), Calum Robinson (Sound Designer) and producers Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment, Joseph Houston & William Whelton for Hope Mill Theatre, Ollie Rosenblatt for Senbla, and associate producer Guy James. 

We were invited to the soft opening of Feldon Valley hotel and golf club, which lies between Sutton-under-Brailes and Brailes in Oxfordshire. Its location is significant because it’s literally just minutes from our house in Tysoe, which meant for once we could get there for the 6.30pm start!

If you’re local you might know Feldon Valley, as Brailes Golf Club, it was for many many years a place for work functions (and golf, of course!). I had a perfectly nice day out on the driving range with a bbq when I worked for an insurance firm in my gap year – it was perfectly pleasant, but perhaps nothing to write home about.

Fast forward a decade and the place has gone through a radical transformation. The clubhouse is unrecognisable and in addition, the team have added three large lodges and the main hotel building. There’s even a small gym which is open to members.

Feldon Valley

Lodges at Feldon Valley

The accommodation at Feldon Valley has a contemporary, comfortable, personable vibe. The artwork on the walls is all shot from an on-staff photographer, Bamford toiletries line the shelves in the bathroom and the staff go out of their way to welcome you. Every guest is sent a personalised letter, even including the dog’s name. (Did I mention that they’ve special rooms for pets?)

Feldon Valley

The hotel and lodges can be booked via the likes of Hotel.com or Booking.com, however, to get the best service and equitable price, Feldon Valley encourages visitors to book direct. This is so they can provide those personal touches, like suggestions for your dog walks, which they can’t always do through a third party site. A room costs around £190 a night for a Lodge Golf View if booking direct; the Lodge Suite is £250.

The lodges are designed so that you can either hire the whole lodge – which includes 3 – 4 rooms with one room set aside as a suite which includes a kitchen diner and living room area. Alternatively, you can hire just a suite or just a room. It’s very flexible making a great space for families or larger gatherings.

The Hotel Manager mentioned that the lodges were proving popular for wedding parties – with the suites providing enough space for a bride and her bridesmaids to get ready with the photographer bustling around.

To begin with, I was indifferent to the fact that the lodge offered a ‘golf course view’, I’m no Tiger Woods, but having said that when you’re stood on the balcony, I can imagine that it would be an enviable spot for a romantic breakfast for two. The view did steal the show and the wide sliding glass doors help.

The lodges themselves are set amongst a woodland area, which is still in its infancy. In time, it’ll be a lovely walk through the wooded floor to reach the lodges.

The hotel is perceptively big, from the outside, you’d guess maybe ten or so rooms, but it’s actually quite large – probably twenty rooms upwards. The hotel vibe is somewhere between the bare wood of Soho Farmhouse and urban-chic Shoreditch. I’d say the only thing really missing from the experience is a spa.

Feldon Valley still has a very active golf community – a chap wandered into our tour looking for the clubhouse, so members are clearly still getting used to the new look. And we took a golf buggy for a drive around the grounds – which are extensive. Being no golfer, I can not really give you much of an indication if the course equates to a satisfying round of golf. But I can say that there were plenty of players still going at 7pm on a summer’s evening.

We stopped by the veg plot, ‘The Ecology Island’ no less,  where the team plan to grow produce for the restaurant. And this gives me good segway to our dinner…

Eating – Feldon Valley’s The Kitchen

It does feel a bit wrong to call it ‘the clubhouse’ because that immediately conjures up images of a 70s working mans’ club and that is doing Feldon Valley a massive injustice. The clubhouse has two areas to its restaurant, known as The Kitchen,  a more casual area for lunches, breakfast, informal meetings and a fine dining area. Both spaces have a great view over the landscape course.

On our visit, the team had set up an area for us to try several different dishes developed by executive chef, Darren Brown.  Darren joined the team in February 2019 and brings with him a wealth of culinary confidence, having previously earned a Michelin star.  It’s clear Darren is keen to support high-quality local producers such as Cacklebean Eggs, meat from Brailes neighbour Paddock Farm, cheeses from Wellocks and fruit and veg from Stratford’s AM Bailey.  (Plus anything from the Ecology Island!)

I think Marcus Waring and Monica Galetti, Masterchef the professional judges, would have been impressed with the presentation of the dishes. Standouts for us included…

Salcombe crab with kohlrabi, fennel puree and apple puree (£11)

Alan Cox’s Oddington Asparagus, garlic, parsley, mayonnaise and Cacklebean egg yolk  (£8)

Ricotta dumplings with sprouting broccoli, courgette, peas and Regato cheese  (£15)

Paddock Farm Tamworth, Pork collar & head, baby carrot, carrot chutney

Dark chocolate mousse, white chocolate ice cream, praline rice Krispies

Lower Brailes honey parfait ‘sandwich’, pear and honeycomb

Strawberry ruby chocolate dome, pistachio ice cream (£7)

And local cheese served with celery salt crackers, Eccles cake and mustard fruits. (£12)

This was all washed down with several glasses of Rioja.  And our highlights amount to roughly 80 per cent of the taster menu we tried.  We also took a gander at the Sunday roast menu which was reasonably priced, with the roast pork and roast beef coming in at £18 and £19 respectively.

Talking to the MD, he was keen to show that really Feldon Valley was as much restaurant and hotel as it was a golf club. Appealing to locals who could swing by for coffee, lunch or dinner, business people for a meeting or indeed golfers for a round. I’d say it tows a good line between all of these.

Find out more via https://www.feldonvalley.co.uk/

 

Tom and I have booked a trip to Paris for our 2nd wedding anniversary in December, so I was quite excited to get an invitation to review the current UK tour of Amélie The Musical when it opened in Oxford at New Theatre on Monday night. 

The musical is based on the five-time Oscar-nominated 2001 film, Amélie.

Amélie is the story of an astonishing young woman who lives quietly in the world, but loudly in her mind. She secretly improvises small, but extraordinary acts of kindness that bring happiness to those around her. But when a chance at love comes her way, Amélie realises that to find her own contentment she’ll have to risk everything and say what’s in her heart.

The starring role was played by French-Canadian stage and screen actress, Audrey Brisson as Amélie Poulain, whilst actor Danny Mac, former Strictly Come Dancing fave and West End performer, plays sweet daydreamer Nino Quincampoix.

I’ve not seen the original film, Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, but I know that it was popular with audiences – it is to date the highest-grossing French-language film released in the United States and one of the biggest international successes for a French film. I was a bit surprised to see that the theatre wasn’t quite so full as on other visits.

This was probably the best performance we’ve seen at New Theatre during 2019 and certainly since we saw Blood Brothers before Xmas.

Audrey Brisson’s Amélie is kooky and petite. Stereotypically, you’d expect Amélie to be mousy, fragile and vulnerable, and although she certainly has moments of anxiety, she asserts her own mind throughout the story. She won’t simply accept what she’s told by her overbearing parents, that she has a weak heart and that’s her lot – like something out of the Victorian era with women frequently diagnosed as hysterical. That appealed to me.

I have always admired anybody who can play a musical instrument, especially if they can move at the same time. I remember aged 14 playing Mambo No. 5 in school jazz band and at different points, we had to stand and rock from side to side whilst playing the clarinet – I found it so difficult!

Here every member of the cast played an instrument frequently completing challenging, ensemble choreography. I found Jez Unwin who played Amelie’s father, Raphael, particularly mesmerizing because he played the cello, balanced from one shoulder (and in some lights looked a bit like Nicolas Cage!).  Jez is also part of the postmodern swing group, The FlyBoys.

I was not expecting Princess Diana to feature so heavily in this Parisian story about 20th-century bohemians, but that lead to some of the funniest scenes. Caolan McCarthy has an excellent Elton John warble during the scene where the cast reenacts part of Diana’s funeral for Amélie. Writing it down it sounds quite disrespectful, but actually, it’s very moving, you’ll just have to watch the musical for yourself.

As a musical it wasn’t filled with songs that you’d necessarily recognise, however, they were all solid numbers with many of them breaking into several harmonies and with difficult melodies to sing. All the cast had super voices, Audrey Brisson’s high register was perfect for Amélie and contrasted well with Danny Mac’s melodious alto.

On the way home, my mum and I discussed at some length, as two avid musical fans with comprehensive knowledge (spanning 1940s Hollywood to today’s frequent jukebox musical), we agreed that it was good to see a musical that had both light and shade and wasn’t a complete camp romp from start to finish. (Don’t get me wrong, love that too!)

It’s a sophisticated musical, that has moments of sadness. It’s not quite as tragic as King and I, West Side Story or Carousel, where (spoiler!) the main chap dies, but it is still poignant.  The finale chorus ends with Amelie’s ‘Where do we go from here?’ to Nino’s ‘I don’t know, Will there be sweet things? I hope so.’

With music by Hem’s Daniel Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé and book by Craig Lucas, this new musical adaptation is written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant and is directed by Michael Fentiman.

Tickets for Amélie, which runs until 21st June, can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting our website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford