London: Day One, Friday 3/29/19
They fed us a little yogurt and some kind of pastry for breakfast. We saw Beej again as we got off the plane and he gave us vouchers for the express line through Immigration. That was major. We took the Heathrow Express (a shuttle train) to Paddington Station and then a cab to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Shoreditch.
We checked into our room, unwound for a while, took a shower, changed, and headed to our first stop. Richard has been working for CHR since last fall, a London-based company that arranges travel for groups. He’s their New York agent, sending American visitors to the UK and other destinations in Europe. His boss, Steve, was celebrating his 60th birthday and hosted a luncheon at a gorgeous London restaurant, the Gilbert Scott in the Renaissance Hotel at the St. Pancras train station.
Our lunch was at the chef’s table, but we started with cocktails in the bar. We were a party of ten. Here are a few photos:
We moved downstairs to the chef’s table. Richard had Steve’s mother on his left, me on his right. I had Richard on my left (naturally) and Steve’s mother’s friend, Chris, on my right. I’m a little wary of strangers, I feel ill at ease having to talk with someone I don’t know. I was hoping that I’d get to sit on the end, where I could talk with Richard or talk with no one. But I really enjoyed talking with Chris - - we talked about our families, our travels, and he told me some fascinating stories about his work as a funeral director. Talking with him was one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip, and maybe I’ll be a little less wary of strangers next time?
Eight of us had the standard tasting menu - - Olivia is a vegetarian and Tim is a vegan, so they got something different at nearly every course.
Soup: This was the only course that worked for all ten of us, it was a vegan soup finished off with a broccoli puree.
Salmon: Cold smoked Scottish salmon served with grilled citrus.
Fish: Sebring with julienned squash.
Veal: Our table had a wonderful view of the kitchen, of course. I noticed an object at the end of the counter, a glass tank with boiling water and a set of controls. I said to Richard that I thought it was a sous vide, a hoity toity contraption you use to cook meat (or other things). You sort of shrink wrap the thing you want to cook and then put it in the boiling water. A friend the week before told me it’s the best way to make a steak. Can you imagine. I’d never seen one before, so this was a treat. They cooked our small filet of veal in the sous vide, then dipped it in heavy cream (though they call it “double cream” in England), then pan-seared it with shallots.
Dessert: Hazelnut ice cream, topped with a shard of honeycomb, flanked by two house-made roasted marshmallows infused with citrus, finished with a dollop of whipped cream and scattered with roasted hazelnuts. Everything was delicious and the service was impeccable.
We went back to the hotel from there and slept for a couple of hours. We woke up feeling refreshed and didn’t have to worry about going all the way to London to see *All About Eve* and then sleeping through the show.
I’m sure we must have had a bite to eat before the show, but I don’t remember what it was.
The whole point of our trip was the show. Richard and I each have our own favorite movie (his is *Gone With the Wind,* mine is *Laura*), but our shared favorite movie is *All About Eve,* a crackling backstage drama from 1950, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Saunders, Thelma Ritter, Celeste Holm, Marilyn Monroe, and a few other people we don’t really care about.
I read in the NY Times in April of 2017 that whack job Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove was doing an adaptation of the movie for the London stage, starring Cate Blanchett in the Bette Davis role. Richard and I agreed that we had to cross the pond to see it, and I kept my eye on the internet. I checked every couple of weeks for details. At one point they announced a range of dates but not a theater, which seemed very strange. Then a couple of months went by and the trail went cold. No announcement that it had been canceled, just nothing.
In the meantime I had seen quite a few more shows directed by van Hove (*A View From the Bridge,* *The Crucible,* *The Fountainhead,* *The Damned*), so I became even more interested in seeing the show, if it should happen. Then in January of this year, the NY Times published a conversation between their three theatre critics, talking about van Hove and his current Broadway production of *Network* (which I saw and loved). They talked about other projects of his, and mentioned his *All About Eve,* which was about to open in London! With Gillian Anderson (of *X Files* fame) in the Bette Davis role and Lily James (of *Downton Abbey,* *Cinderella,* and *Darkest Hour*) in the Anne Baxter role. This time we bought tickets immediately!
A friend told me Ben Brantley’s review was in the Times after the show opened, and though I don’t like to read reviews before I see a show, I couldn’t resist reading the first paragraph. He used the word “vampire” in the first sentence, and in the second referred to the show as “the anemic spectacle now sleepwalking across the stage of the Noel Coward Theater.” Ouch! But you know, I often disagree with Brantley, in both directions - - I love things he hates and hate things he loves. Ask me sometime about the unbearably boring production of *The Seagull* that played on Broadway in 2008, which he said was the most perfect production of a Chekhov play he had ever seen. So I don’t trust him one bit.
We loved the show.
It started with a blackout, always a startling way to open a show. Then, as in the movie, theatre critic Addison de Witt introduced the characters. He was alone onstage, but a videographer showed us the other characters offstage, behind the walls of the boxy set. The use of video is a specialty of van Hove, he uses it in such an inventive and impactful way. Another trademark of his is the liberal use of music, which he doesn’t use as effectively. For one thing, the music he chooses is a disappointment - - this show had a score by P. J. Harvey, and it was limp and had no dramatic value. Plus (as in *A View From the Bridge*) the music is sometimes so quiet that you almost can’t hear it, which annoys me intensely.
Another trademark - - he almost always includes something shocking, something deliberately upsetting. In this show it was watching live offstage video footage of Margo (the Bette Davis character) throwing up. Which is gross to start with, right? But then do we also need to see the vomit in the toilet bowl? I guess van Hove thinks we did need to see that, but I’m not convinced.The performances were extraordinary, across the board. Armstrong had all of the verve, glamour, and depth needed to play Margo, she was a wonder and a delight. James impressed us a lot as Eve, she really proved herself as something more than a compelling, pretty young blonde. She’s a very skilled actor and I look forward to seeing more from her. Julian Overden (who we also know from *Downton Abbey*) was wonderful as Bill, Margo’s boyfriend. The high point of the show was the central scene between Bill and Margo - - there was no video, no music, nothing fancy, just two actors onstage connecting to each other and delivering the drama in the script. I’d like to see van Hove do more of this!
Stanley Townsend played Addison de Witt. The best thing about him was his plummy, sonorous voice. He really held the stage. Monica Dolan played Margo’s best friend, Karen. I hadn’t noticed that she’s the central narrator of the story, and she did a great job as the point of view character. Another interesting thing about the show is that van Hove brought in a few choice bits of new material, probably taken from the play by Mary Orr on which the screenplay was based.
The show appeared to be sold out and the audience had a great time. It was clear from the audience reaction (some gasps and “hmms”) that there were quite a few people who hadn’t seen the movie. How cute is that.We waked out of the theater entirely satisfied, but a little peckish. We got a couple sandwiches and some potato chips at a Pret a Manger down the street. And of course, we slept very soundly that night.