Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bring Your Own Podium

It occurred to me recently, when I was out dancing with some old Eastbourne Theatres cohorts, that we had been bouncing around that same nightclub together since before most of its current regulars had even been born. This may seem like a depressing realisation, but actually I felt quite proud that my urge to boogie - born in the seedy haunts of my hometown - is as strong now as it was eighteen years ago. If anything, apart from a brief lull during the London commuting years, my stamina for staying out all night has improved as time has gone on.

In view of this longstanding commitment to the cause, I feel some sort of recognition or reward is in order - at the very least the right to dance on tables if I want to. On Friday night at Carnivalesque, I was denied this post-30 clubber's prerogative by an utterly humourless bouncer, and thought, "if only I had brought my own podium!" Seriously, there must be a market for a handbag-sized fold-out platform that could be whipped out on such an occasion - whenever the urge to 'show the young 'uns how it's done' rears its ugly head. And oh, how it does. I wasn't the only in need of such a stage either - in fact my abortive attempt triggered a supportive mini-rebellion among several other indignant women of a similar age. Needless to say, the bouncer was not amused, but then he wouldn't even let someone have a little snooze in the corner, so dancing on tables was never going to be an option. Good on you for trying girls, but next time we're just going to have to bring our own podiums.

Photo (not of me) by meeware on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Candlelit Dinner for Two

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my 18th birthday, and as a special treat I'd asked Ant to take me out to dinner, just the two of us, at a surprise venue. I genuinely didn't have a clue as to where we were going until he lead the way off the pavement of Marine Parade into the Drakes hotel driveway. A very subtle little sign revealed that we were headed for The Gingerman restaurant, which resides in the basement of the hotel. Gingerman is a local chain of four that started with one restaurant on Norfolk Square and now includes two gastro pubs - The Ginger Pig in Hove and The Ginger Fox in Albourne, as well as this branch in one of Brighton's swishest boutique hotels. I hadn't been expecting anything so posh, so was glad I'd worn a frock rather that jeans (I'd been told 'smart casual', so it could have gone either way).

When we arrived it was fairly quiet in the elegant-yet-cosy basement - the staff were friendly and attentive, and remained so even when the restaurant filled up later on. From an extensive wine list I picked a white Rioja - described as being 'toasty on the nose with citrus undertones' - which went down very well. We were brought a bowl of juicy green olives to keep us going, as well as appetisers in the form of a little fried cheeseball and shot glass of chive-flavoured froth (just don't think about cats and grass when you're eating it) delivered on a slate coaster. I chose wild mushroom ravioli with mushroom broth to start, followed by spinach and crotin pithivier with white onion puree, spinach and a cep veloute. I didn't know what a pithivier was, and was expecting something fancy, but it turned out to be basically a little pie filled with goats cheese. The combination of pungent Crotin cheese and crumbly puff pastry was lovely, but I craved something clean-tasting to cut through the tanginess of the cheese - green beans or fresh salad leaves might have worked better than wilted spinach. But aside from these minor gripes, it was a delightful meal.

Ant seemed more than happy with his choices (venison, followed by fish), and the modest portions meant that we both had plenty of room for dessert. Soufflé is something I have so far failed to conquer in my own kitchen (they either collapse or go inedibly solid), so I decided to try someone else's to get an idea of how it
should turn out. I'm not sure if I've ever actually eaten one before, and imagined it to be something light and fluffy - somewhere between a mousse and a sponge perhaps. What arrived was more like a soggy yorkshire pudding, with a faint taste of blackberry. I wasn't keen, so after a few mouthfuls, salvaged the remaining ice cream from the middle (where it had been placed by the very enthusiastic waitress), and let Ant finish it for me. It's not that it was a bad soufflé (apparently), I have just decided that I don't actually like soufflé after all - the perfect excuse to abandon any further attempts to conjour one myself. Phew.

As you can see from the above picture, my dessert plate was inscribed with 'Happy BIRTHDAY' (aw, shucks) in chocolate. Since my special day was drawing to a close, I thought it only appropriate to devour the 'BIRTHDAY' bit, leaving only 'Happy' on the empty plate. Which is exactly how I felt after a lovely indulgent meal out with my husband. After dinner we wandered across the road to the pier, where Ant had promised to serenade me with the karaoke song of my choice at the notorious Horatio's bar. Sadly (for me anyway), the pier was shut already, so I had to make do with a round or two of Singstar back at the flat instead. My work colleagues had bought me the 'Anthems' edition for my birthday, so I finished off my celebrations belting out 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' (neighbours be damned!) - the perfect end to a delightful evening.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Frocks, Freaks and Fabulous Friends

The last time I got dolled up to go dancing was probably for Born Bad vs Gypsy Hotel at Komedia back in July, which actually turned out to be a bit of a let down, so I was really looking forward to celebrating my birthday at The Magic Theatre at the weekend. I'd chosen this event specifically because it was in London, and I fancied a change from the usual Brighton party circuit. I discovered that it is quite difficult to persuade other people out of their seaside comfort zone though, so it turned out to be a small (but perfectly formed) gathering of a few game Brightonians and some London-based friends - all of whom looked fabulous in an eclectic assortment of costumes. I went for a Bugsy Malone-inspired vintage ensemble, including a dress purchased from eBay especially for the occasion, accessorised with bits and pieces from the dressing up trunk.

We knew as soon as we walked up to the Bloomsbury Ballroom that we were in for an interesting night - a motley assemblage of smokers loitering at the door gave a hint as to the type of punters we'd find inside: weird and wonderful, bold and theatrical, wantonly disturbing and sexually ambiguous - suddenly the outfits in which we had felt so self-conscious on the bus from Hackney appeared positively pedestrian in comparison. Inside we discovered an elegant Art Deco ballroom, perhaps a little too polished and corporate-feeling for this type of debauched event, but pleasantly light and airy, with plenty of places to perch. Oh, and the toilets were immaculate, which is always a bonus.


Photos from The Magic Theatre by Jaded Lady

People were friendly and talkative, and each of us found ourselves making new friends and coming back together with stories to tell. The music ranged from show-tunes to rock 'n roll to jazz standards, and when I wasn't dancing I was merrily singing along to everything from 'Bad Guys' to 'Mein Herr'. Entertainment was laid on in the form of a couple of (frankly baffling) cabaret acts and a live band - The Voodoo Trombone Quartet - who got everyone dancing with their infectious funky brass rhythms. The night went by in a flash of sequins and salacious gossip, and suddenly I was wafting about to Edith Piaf, saying appropriately theatrical goodbyes to friends old and new. I wish more of my Brighton cronies had been there to enjoy what turned out to be a super special night, and well worth the trek up to Town - but big love to those who did make the effort, and thank you all for giving me a birthday bash to remember.

More photos at the Magic Theatre Flickr page.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Bye Bye Bonnie

I first met Erin, aka 'Bonnie' after seeing her in a play last Christmas at the Pavilion Theatre (where she played the fantasy hooker of a lonely man's imagination) and we were introduced by our mutual friend Neel in the pub afterwards. When the invite came to her one-woman show upstairs at the Three and Ten this week, I jumped at the chance to see her in action again. Bonnie in Brighton, written and directed by Erin's husband Guy Picot, was originally performed in 2005, and became a sell-out show at Brighton Festival in 2006, earning her the Best Female Performer Award. A diary-style account of a young Texan girl's love affair with Brighton during her gap year, it clearly comes from the heart - and I found myself wondering how many of the anecdotes might actually be based on Erin's own experiences as an American in Brighton.

Persuaded to visit Brighton by a random stranger in a park in London, and fed up with the Big Smoke, a fresh-faced backpacker abandons her original plan to travel Europe in favour of non-stop partying and 'finding herself' in the intoxicatingly tolerant and open-minded bohemian seaside resort. This may all sound like a rather cliched and worn-out premise, but Erin's animated performance and abundant stage-presence, not to mention a knock-out script, draws you in from the start. Meeting new friends at a seedy hostel, acquiring the alias 'Bonnie', getting a dead-end job in an amusement arcade, partying all night, accidentally ending up with a suitcase full of cash and ecstasy - all these adventures and more are told like chapters in a pacey novel. As expected, there are plenty of laughs, but also some genuinely tear-jerking moments. One-handers can be a tricky thing to pull off, but Erin did it beautifully, and I'm not just saying that because she's a mate. Sadly this was the last chance to see the Bonnie in Brighton, as its star will shortly be moving back to the States. We'll miss you Bonnie!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

And For My Next Trick...

In complete contrast to Tuesday's intimate and goose-pimply performance, last night's entertainment was the frenetically garish Le Grand Cirque, which is on at the Theatre Royal in Brighton all this week as part of an ongoing international tour. Despite the French-sounding name, Le Grande Cirque is mostly made up of Chinese acrobats, flanked by a troupe of statuesque white (possibly Russian?) female dancers. Frantic displays of eye-popping physical feats are interspersed with gentle comic relief in the form of a (thankfully not too scary) mischievous clown, who converses with the audience in some kind of mumbling faux-French, pulling people up on stage to have a laugh at their expense. One poor guy was made to strip to the waist and do sexy dancing - though he was fairly game about it. I've seen a fair few acrobatic shows in recent years, yet never cease to wonder at the extreme capabilities of the human body, as demonstrated to impressive effect last night. The costumes and staging were quite literally dazzling, and while Le Grande Cirque may lack the subtlety and humour of neo-burlesque performers like The English Gents or Mantrix, they put on a good show, and it's hard not to get caught up in the glitzy excitement of it all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Brighter and Brighter Still: My Brightest Diamond at Komedia

The last time I saw Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) perform live was at the Green Man Festival in 2007, where she delivered a spine-tingling set that still ranks among my best ever gigs. Like most festival gigs though, it felt all-too short at only 40 minutes or so, and I have been desperate to catch a full-length set ever since. Last night Shara wowed a select but appreciative Brighton crowd at Komedia's intimate studio bar, filling the tiny space with her immense and captivating vocals. The backing band line-up has changed totally since Green Man, with the more proggy sounding two-guitar set-up being replaced with a string trio - making for a a more delicate and complex, deliciously melancholy sound. MBD's support act, Marla Hansen, was like a pared-down Laura Veirs (good) with occasional rambles into Joanna Newsom territory (not so good), but generally likeable. Marla also joined the headline act as violist in the band, alongside Maria Jeffers on cello and Olivier Manchon on violin.

Dressed in coordinating black and white theatrical outfits, which also matched the handmade stripy bunting decorating the stage, the band made an impact before they even began playing. The room fell silent in spangly anticipation as Shara prepared to sing, and from the opening 'Golden Star' to the very last note of her trademark cover of Piaf's 'Hymne a l'Amour', we were suspended in awe at the power and precision of her classically trained voice. Soaring string arrangements ranged from soothingly classical to challengingly avante-garde, and were always tight and heatfelt. Sometimes the string instruments were swapped for guitars, xylophones and a selection of percussive 'toys', and Shara's own guitar-playing proved as impressively versatile as her singing.

Every now and then, members of the band would put down their instruments to entertain us with some rather tongue-in-cheek magic tricks, and at one point I found myself being pulled up by the foxy French fiddler to 'pick a card'. This all added to the cabaret charm of the evening, and it felt as though we had been treated to something very special. On the one hand it was a shame there weren't more people to experience such an awesome show, but I was also secretly enjoying the smug satisfaction of being one of the lucky few.

Last night was the first ever Brighton gig from established London promoter The Local (check out the website for future shows at Komedia), and only the second night of My Brightest Diamond's mammoth European tour. MBD's latest LP, A Thousand Shark's Teeth, was released earlier this year on Asthmatic Kitty, and is likely to make it into my top ten albums of the year.

Photo of Shara Worden copyright © Rowan Stanfield 2008 - more images of My Brightest Diamond at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar






Monday, September 15, 2008

A Holiday at Home

Finally, after a whole summer of damp dreariness, we were blessed with an entire weekend of virtually uninterrupted sunshine. Yes! It so happened that the other half and I were scheduled to be in Eastbourne for the duration, looking after Mother's mini-menagerie while she was away on her annual pilgrimage to Walsingham. I found myself falling in love with my hometown all over again as we made the most of its balmy climate (they don't call it 'The Suntrap of the South' for nothing you know) and genteel charm, for what felt like a proper mini-holiday - complete with traditional English seaside pursuits.

Having been born and raised in Eastbourne, I moved to Brighton in my mid twenties because it offered a more diverse range of cultural activities, and is generally more open-minded and tolerant than its nearest rival resort; but there are drawbacks to living in such a popular and 'trendy' destination. We rarely venture down to the seafront in the summer months, wary of the heaving crowds and rowdy daytrippers; whereas in Eastbourne we were able to wander along the prom in relative peace. Down at the elegant Holywell end of the beach on Saturday morning, there was nobody about but a few eldery sunbathers and the occasional dog-walker, as we strolled right down to the cliffs, basking in glorious sunshine all the way. I only wish I'd packed my bikini - the sea looked so inviting. Our intended lunch destination, The Ship in Meads, had a 'no dogs' policy, so we ended up across the road at the Black Cat Café for a perfectly pleasant sandwich instead.

After dropping Pascha the dog back at Mum's, we ventured into the town centre, partly just to see what was new, but mainly with the legendary Camilla's bookshop in our sites. I used to spend hours in this place as a book-hungry teenager, then later as a penniless undergraduate looking for cheap textbooks, and am happy to see that despite the increasingly ramshackle interior, it is still going strong. I bought myself a selection of paperback novels - including original orange Penguin editions of The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch and The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann - for our upcoming trip to Hungary and Croatia; while Ant browsed the military history section looking for some obscure tome.

I managed to drag him away on the promise of an ice-cream at Thayers, where we also met up with my sister, her boyfriend and their delightful new baby Nathaniel (who arrived nearly two weeks late on Friday 5th, in case you were wondering) for a ceremonious scoop (or in Ant's case, two) in honour of the new addition to the clan. We've been going to Thayers since I can remember - it was originally called Dayvilles and has always sold an amazing selection of flavours. My favourite (and my sister's) as a child was the now near-mythical 'Daiquiri Ice' - sadly no longer available, though still much talked about, and doubtless responsible for my subsequent penchant for cocktails. Despite the disappearance of certain retro flavours, the decor and furniture has hardly changed since the 70s, and the same jolly guy has been running it as Thayers for the last 15 years or more. Rather sweetly, he always remembers me, even though my visits these days are few and far between. I've yet to discover a comparable old-fashioned dedicated ice-cream parlour in Brighton - if there is one, someone please tell me!

On Saturday night we dropped in to my old local, and setting for a many a rites-of-passage, The Marine, for a quick drink before dinner. After a brief speculative wander, we ended up at what has lately taken over from good old Solo Pasta as Eastbourne's most popular and reliable Italian restaurant, Pomodoro e Mozzarella. The place was buzzing with birthdays and hen-nights, but nothing too disruptive, and the service was excellent considering. I chose a simple spaghetti and sun-dried tomato dish, while Ant went for a more indulgent calzone - the biggest I have ever seen! It was the size of my head, I'm not kidding! Amazingly, he still had room for dessert (a Tiramisu-style ice-cream sundae), though was happy for me to help him out.

On Sunday we took to the Downs with the dog for a circular walk from Butts Brow via Jevington, stopping at The Eight Bells for a cup of tea (it was too early for lunch) half way, and marvelling at the incredible panoramic views on the way back. A final weekend indulgence was cream tea at the Pavilion tearooms, where we sat reflecting on what had been a wonderfully relaxing weekend, and complimenting Eastbourne on its previously unappreciated virtues. I'm not quite ready to consider moving back there just yet, but would certainly recommend it as a haven for anyone wanting to escape the seemingly endless cycle of hedonism and wanton-eccentricity that tends to define weekends in Brighton. It was especially nice for me to be in the comforting surrounds of the familial abode, but without the usual chores and errands of a weekend at home hanging over my head. I came back feeling utterly refreshed and revived, resolving to spend more time re-acquainting myself with the place I once called home.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sun Kil Moon at Audio

After a little post-festival-burnout lull, the first band of our new gig-going season was Sun Kil Moon last night downstairs at Audio. The venue had been changed from the far superior Concorde 2 for no obvious reason, which was disappointing, but it still turned out to be an excellent show. Audio is a difficult, some would say unsuitable, live music venue - with its low ceilings and funnel acoustic, quieter solo acts struggle against talkative punters, and even whole bands can fall flat. Last night's support act, Lianne Hall, put on a brave face against the chattering crowd, playing an interesting mix of live-looping on guitar and retro-sounding Casio keyboard, with pleasing vocals and some adept guitar-picking. We realised we'd seen her before, back when we were both in our 20s, at an open-mic type night at the Sanctuary. Then she'd been accompanied by cellist Bela Emerson, and a guy to do her knob-twiddling for her, so last night did feel a little sparse, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I was relieved to see a full band come on for the main event, immediately filling the small space with sound, and largely drowning out those persistently garrulous few. I only had to tap a shoulder once, and then was rather satisfyingly met with apologetic mortification. Although Sun Kil Moon have been around for five years or so (lead singer Mark Kozelek was previously in slowcore progenitors Red House Painters), I only came across them fairly recently via a friend's myspace profile. Perfectly bridging that fantasy gap in my record collection between contemporary Alt. country/Americana (Bright Eyes, Lambchop, Grandaddy) and rambling post-rock (Do Make Say Think, Explosions in the Sky, Tortoise), and exuding the same tender fragility of, say, Low or Pavement, Kozelek's current set-up makes for exhilarating listening.

There was plenty of gentle rocking and closed-eyed head-nodding as the tight four-piece soothed our collective consciousness with an inspiriting set that almost made you forget what a seedy dive you were in. Though I couldn't help thinking how even more fantastic they would have sounded in St George's Church, where such ephiphanic bands really belong. Aside from the odd polite heckle, people don't tend to talk during those gigs either, maybe it's something to do with the religious surroundings - although I suspect that most of the regular audience members are either firm atheists or woolly Brighton-Buddhist types. I suppose if you put a gig on in a nightclub, you can only expect people to act like drunken idiots. But Sun Kil Moon coped admirably with the grotty setting, putting on a memorable performance for a mostly appreciative crowd. Kozelek's reputation as a bit of an introvert was confirmed by the no-cameras policy (hence no photographic evidence) and his unusual position - as lead singer - at the edge of the stage; but the occasional bit of dry banter (mostly about the venue) stopped him coming across as entirely aloof.

Next week we're off to see Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond, at Komedia, and I'm looking forward to seeing how she's progressed since her mind-blowing gig at Green Man in 2007, following the release of a second album, A Thousand Shark's Teeth, this year. Sun Kil Moon have several more UK dates to come on their current UK tour, including an appearance at the End of the Road Festival this weekend - check out their website for details: www.sunkilmoon.com/Tour.html

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Waiting...

This past year has involved a lot of waiting. Immediately after the accident (just over a year ago), I endured several months of waiting for my jaw to heal so that I could start eating solids again (albeit soft solids, if that makes sense) and stop filling my body with painkillers, then I waited for it to regain sufficient mobility for the dental surgery to commence. I went for the first stage of implants back in April, and since then have been quietly ticking off the days until I can return for phase two, which happens six months later.

I can remember thinking on the day of the accident, "I hope my dentist can sort my teeth out quickly", not realising at the time that I had a broken jaw as well, or indeed the extent of the damage to my teeth - let alone how unhelpful and limited the NHS dental system would be for someone in my predicament. Now there is just over a month to go before I return to Hungary for the second (and hopefully final) phase of treatment, and finally I can start to see a flicker of light at the end of what has felt like a long, dark, lonely tunnel.

The experience has taught me a lot about patience and acceptance, and has given me a deeper respect for those who deal with disability and discomfort on a daily basis - many of whose afflictions are far more severe than mine. It's amazing what you can learn to live with, given the support and comfort of loved ones, and I would especially like to thank my loyal and long-suffering husband for his continuous support - both practical and emotional - during the whole miserable episode. There are a few other special people who have been there for me through all the ups and downs - they know who they are, and I hope they also know that I love them all dearly. You certainly find out who your friends are in times like these.

So, only 48 days to go until I can smile (and sing!) with confidence again. My natural anxiety about being back in the dentist's chair is somewhat alleviated by the overwhelming excitement of knowing that all that waiting will be over, not to mention the prospect of a much-needed holiday afterwards. Meanwhile, I am currently waiting impatiently for a different kind of event entirely - the birth of my second niece or nephew; my sister's first child. At the time of writing she is nearly two weeks overdue (apparently not all that unusual for a first baby) and I am fluttering every time the phone rings. My sense of anticipation is doubled by the need for some happy news after a year of fretful tribulation, and the hope that being an auntie again will distract me during the final few weeks of waiting for my dental ordeal to be over. Hurry up and pop, sister, I can't bear to wait any more!