La Bohème & Le Vin Herbé at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Two Nights at the Opera: an accidental double bill.

Firstly, snaps to Welsh National Opera for offering £5 tickets to under-30s. Other institutions seem to think that once you’ve turned 26 – you’re suddenly in a position where you can afford to go from £5 to £25 average for tickets. (LOOKING AT YOU NATIONAL THEATRE). At 26 I was just finishing Uni, spending too much money on rent and sadly, culture wasn’t a priority. If the idea of these youth-subsidised tickets is to encourage new generations to patron the theatre, it would be better applied to 25-30 year olds. Once you really appreciate the benefit of an evening not spent drunk, theatre becomes so much more enticing. So kudos to WNO, for allowing pretentious, middle class millennials a cheap night at the opera. Thanks to some unfortunate double booking, I had to reschedule my nice Saturday evening La Bohème performance to a Wednesday night, with Le Vin Herbé Thursday.

La Bohème

Everyone with a passing interest in musical theatre should be aware of La Bohème – it shares basic plot elements with Jonathan Larson’s Rent (also on its way to WMC in April). Baz Luhrmann also directed this very bohemian opera in 1990 for Opera Australia that almost certainly inspired his own Moulin Rouge a decade later. When Rodolfo and Mimi are scuttling around looking for her key on the apartment floor in the moonlight – I had Light my Candle stuck in my head instead of Puccini’s rousing score.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

It was a competent revival of Annabel Arden’s take on the Puccini piece, originally staged for the WNO in 2012. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design was stark and cold. There was no rose tinting of the poverty of the bohemian quartet, highlighting the warmth and exuberance in the jolly second act jaunt to Café Momus. Of the main players, Gary Griffiths and Lauren Fagan’s Marcello and Musetto made a bigger impression than Rodolfo and Mimi. While her arias were delivered well, Marina Costa-Jackson presence is too strong to be convincingly dying of tuberculosis.

La Boheme WNO Wales Millennium Centre

Much has been said in the press about Manlio Benzi’s conducting, being a little unruly. I don’t confess to being familiar enough with Opera to really notice either way. I’m not entirely convinced that La Bohème itself really deserves it place in the revered opera canon. Iconic story aside, I didn’t really find any of the music that memorable. The most resonating part of the whole two hours was Mimi’s spot lit corpse, harshly spot lit, alone on the stage. Give me Rent any day.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO's La Bohème.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO’s La Bohème.

Le Vin Herbé

If La Bohème is possibly staged a bit too often, then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé is definitely not stage often enough. Written between 1938-41, although it could easily be much more contemporary than that. Based on the same tale as Richard Wagner’s better-known take on the Tristan and Iseult story, but the similarities end there. This piece is a small and intimate, more oratorio than opera. Whether through budgetary constraint or artistic vision, this WNO revival has a stark staging. A bridge, with steps on either side, dominates the bare, black stage, with the few musicians assembled in front. This places the music and the performers at the forefront.

WNO's bare staging of Frank Martin's Le Vin Herbé.

WNO’s bare staging of Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé.

The story itself is as old as time itself, the ill-fated lovers with tragic ends. The Vin herbé of the title is the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. The libretto is sung mostly by the chorus – and in English. I’m in two minds about an English libretto, at once easy to just listen and not be distracted reading the surtitles. It can also sound clunky, with clichéd phrasing becoming more apparent when you understand the language.

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the star crossed Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the ill fated Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Le Vin Herbé was a wonderful listen, particularly Caitlin Hulcup’s Irish princess Iseult whose strong mezzo range handled the challenging role with ease. Her entrance astride the bridge, in contrast to the black clad cast. Conducting Martin’s dramatic composition was James Southall who did a brilliantly energetic job. There were also moments of beauty in April Dalton’s simple staging and set design. A huge white sheet dropped from above stage at a pertinent moment. The large chorus laying candles at Iseult’s body, one by one – it was moving stuff.

Caitlin Hulcup's invigorating Iseult as the tragedy builds.

Caitlin Hulcup’s invigorating performance as Iseult as the tragedy builds.

I’d assumed that this was going to be a more intimate production, having read about previous stagings. I wondered how they were going to adapt Martin’s intimate oratorio for the large Donald Gordon auditorium, made even more massive by the bare staging. The answer was by expanding the chorus. I’m not entirely convinced by this, there were at times too many bodies on the stage, or unnecessarily wandering through the audience (not singing, so I didn’t glean the intentions). It made the scene changes a little overlong in a concise, interval-less production. That said, it was a brave choice for WNO to stage such an unknown piece, and it seemed to sell reasonably well for a Thursday night performance. If the strong reviews from National press are anything to go by, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé will deservedly emerge from the obscure. It was a real treat of an evening.

So a double bill of opera turned into a great showcase for Welsh National Opera, with two very different productions and two starkly different viewpoints on them.

La Bohème is touring until 28th April, Le Vin Herbé is touring until the 25th April. For more info, go to the Welsh National Opera website.


Sinners Club at The Other Room Theatre, Cardiff

Leaving London, one of the things I’ve missed the most was the abundance of theatre. There’s no denying that the cultural scene has improved outside of the capital in recent years. The continuing success of Chichester Festival Theatre, the Leicester Curve and Manchester International Festival prove that the provinces DO care about culture. For its relatively small size, Cardiff enjoys a disproportionate amount of culture led by established venues like the Millennium Centre and the Sherman Theatre. What most cities lack are the small fringe venues and theatre pubs that really push the limits. They offer drama outside of the centre, on a smaller scale. For a company like The Other Room to emerge in Cardiff is a promising sign indeed and Sinners Club proved a promising start to the season.

Sinners Club The Other Room

Sinners Club forms part of their Spring Outliers season., a co-production between the Other Room theatre company, Mold’s Theatr Clwyd and Gaggle Babble. Staged in The Other Room’s intimate space in a side room of Porter’s (opposite the Motorpoint). The space is probably the same as one floor of a small 2 Up 2 Down miner’s terrace but can fit up to 44 people. For Sinners Club, there are two rows of seats around the room with gaps for the band. presumably most of the action is to take place in the centre. Intimate is an understatement. Arriving late and slightly flustered thanks to some unexpected traffic, we ended up sat in the front row which would inevitably result in audience participation (initial anxiety was not misplaced). Mark Bailey’s design sees the venue as a recording studio, complete with a recording booth in the corner. The only other adornments are some neon lights and scattered pics of the last woman hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis.

The play started as the band tuned up. The writer and lead actress of the play Lucy Rivers swaggers into the room in some oversized sunglasses. Without much introduction the music starts. More gig than theatre, Sinners Club bears a tonal resemblance to Rivers’ other work with Gagglebabble. Fictional band, The Bad Mothers are recording a live concept album about the aforementioned Ruth Ellis and the audience has been invited to watch (and participate in) the recording. So far, so meta. Over the 90 minute run time, we get insight into the tragic story of Ruth Ellis through song lyrics and spoken interludes. It’s a fascinating tale. Ellis is a relic of a time gone by, largely forgotten by the public – but at the time was sensationalised by a sexist press like a glammier Aileen Wuornos.

The Bad Mothers are a passable band, the players are more than capable and Lucy Rivers as the singer has a gutsy, bluesy tone to her strong rock voice. Not at all musical theatre, Sinners Club is definitely more gig-theatre. The music itself reminded me of mid-2000s indie favourites Howling Bells’ bluesy-grungey art rock. I’d like to get my hands on a recording of the music as it’s too hard to take in a whole set of new songs on first listen. Standouts were a surreal moment involving a fable about a bird leaving home with an elaborately feathered, Maleficent referencing costume. The other standout was Carolyn, a country infused number complete with cowboy hats and mandolin, – a close relation to that other classic scorned woman country jam Jolene.

Sinners Club The Other Room Theatre Kiera n Cudlip

Rivers herself is obviously very talented – multi instrumentalist, composer, writer and singer. Through the 90 minutes, the lines between Ruth Ellis and her unnamed singer blur as the drama crescendos with Ellis’ inevitable demise. It’s not a light watch, and the rather hard seats (and lack of interval) took meant those 90 minutes took their toll on me physically and mentally. The parallel plotline between the unseen producer and the singer was a bit harder to swallow than the Ruth Ellis story – it just felt a bit unnecessary and clunky. That said, we did go on a preview night and the Cardiff run leads up to another run in Theatr Clwyd so this could be ironed out.

Ultimately, Sinners Club’s intimate gig-theatre was worth seeing for Rivers’ performance alone, but the snapshot of a darker time in British history was a welcome bonus and a timely reminder of the Establishment’s heavy handed justice.

Sinners Club runs at The Other Room at Porter’s until Saturday 18th February, then at Theatr Clwyd, Mold from 2nd to 18th March.

Run Time 90 minutes

Writer Lucy Rivers

Director Titas Halder

Designer Mark Bailey

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

Eggs are the beginning of life. Human beings grow from fertilised eggs. Chickens lay eggs for procreation and its lucky for us that they do – they’re versatile, filling, delicious and nutritious. Its not often you have a food that you can apply all of those adjectives to.

So, eggs – that are the beginning of these strange lives we lead – are also the perfect beginning to the day. I often reminisce about all the wonderful breakfasts I’ve had in my time as well as mourning the disappointing ones. I also take pictures of the best examples for gluttonous posterity. To answer the title question, how do you like your eggs in the morning? – I like them any which way, but usually softly scrambled.


Ottolenghi Shakshuka Eggs

The finest, most generous portion of Shakshuka at Ottolenghi.

Above was a part of the most wonderful brunch I had obe sunny Sunday last summer at Ottolenghi Islington. We’d already filled up on toast and spreads but I still managed to push passed the full-barrier to mop the last blob of tomato.

Gizzi Erskine Breakfast Soft Boiled Eggs & Chorizo

Chorizo, Sweet Potato Mayo and a Soft Boiled Egg.. inspired by Gizzi Erskine.

This was inspired by a Gizzi Erskine recipe from Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts. Sweet potato mayo is like the sweet nectar of the Gods. Who’d have thunk? The sweet and slightly sour mayo is a perfect foil for the spicy chorizo, rich egg and the acidity from the tomatoes. Leftover mayo is also great just spread on bread, or just eaten from a spoon. I’m gross like that.

Fried Eggs & Bacon Jam

Bacon Jam stirred through some Baked Beans topped with a Fried Egg.

Dan Doherty is seemingly the don of Brunch. His Duck and Waffle is a great place to get eggs 24 hours a day in London. His latest book Toast Hash Roash Mash is also basically cover to cover brilliant brunch recipes. He had a recipe for Bacon Jam.. which was the first thing I cooked from the book. Imagine a cross between BBQ Sauce and a Conserve, but with bacon. Honestly, it’s incredible. Like the best example of sweet and salty. It turned a rather pedestrian breakfast of baked beans and a fried egg into something I’d pay for in an embarassingly hipster breakfast cafe.

Scrambled Eggs, Sourdough and Black Pudding

Perfect scrambled eggs with black pudding, bacon jam and sourdough toast.

There’s a little bit of Bacon Jam left in the above breakast.. and some overpriced but unbelievable black pudding I bought in Riverside Market along with some sourdough, from Riverside Sourdough.. and some XL eggs – scrambled with a healthy and hearty Irish portion of butter and a dab of creme fraiche for some French sophistcation.

I fucking love eggs. I sometimes fantasise about being a healthy clean eating vegan.. or ‘plant-based diet’ guru. I have cookbooks just about eggs.. and eggs being the start of most life on this planet. It seemed a fitting subject for this first post. Genesis, Chapter One. In the beginning, God probably started off with eggs, cooked any which way.