“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
This much beloved, much overused quote by Samuel Johnson is just as true now as it was two centuries ago. No matter how many times I visit London (and trust me, I visit a lot), I always find something new to see. A recent excursion was no exception.
The primary motivation for this trip was to catch the final performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. After being fortunate enough to see the first night of the previews, it seemed fitting to finish the journey with the Olivier Award-winning production. But first MrElaineous and I found ourselves enjoying the sheer variety of sights on offer in London neighbourhoods.
We were staying at a place in the very heart of Soho, where trendy cafés and political street art rub elbows with sex shops and strip clubs. It was also just a five-minute walk to the theatre and a few minutes more to the bustling hubbub of Piccadilly Circus. From here we were able to disappear into the underground and emerge several stops later in the refined elegance of Belgravia.
The difference is profound: visitors find themselves literally surrounded by the wealth of London. The imposing façade of Harrod’s department store is one of the first things to catch the eye, followed by the fact that every other car seems to be a Range Rover. The British slang for these type vehicles is a Chelsea tractor: large 4x4s that are used as a status symbol and will never go off-road. The non-Range Rover vehicles? Sleek, shiny, and very expensive.
Walking along Sloane Street was a lesson in conspicuous consumption: Hermes, Prada, Armani, Dior, and more lined the street, and some of the shops even had attendants at the door. Yet our reason for visiting this area was not to gawk at how the other half lives but instead to take part in something a little sweeter. We sought out Rococo Chocolates, where MrElaineous and I attempted to answer the age-old question of whether it is possible to have too much chocolate in one sitting. I’ll be sharing what we discovered in a future blog post, so please stay tuned.
The lights of Soho vs. the lights of the West End: The only difference between these photos was pivoting 180 degrees!
Then it was show time: the curtain went up on director Marianne Elliott’s final night of Company and the waves of enthusiasm emanating from the audience started from the moment Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie walked on stage. It never stopped.
To borrow a lyric from the show itself: Everything’s different, nothing’s changed. The production was even slicker than that first night, with one misbehaving prop now glued firmly in place and cast entrances changed to avoid disturbing another. More striking, an entire scene had been added to give the often cut Tick-Tock dance number both relevance and resonance in the gender-swapped production.
Yet some things hadn’t changed at all: a scene between Bobbie and Jonathan Bailey’s Jaime is one of the finest examples I’ve come across of an emotional roller-coaster as the audience goes from practically rolling in the aisles with laughter to stunned silence in the space of just a few seconds. The situation the characters find themselves in seems absurd but the vulnerability on display is anything but. And, yet again, everyone obeyed Patti LuPone’s command to “Rise!” for the second of what turned out to be three standing ovations before the final curtain call.
I have been fortunate to attend a number of theatrical after parties courtesy of MrElaineous’ involvement with the amateur dramatics circuit, so I am familiar with the speeches, the thank yous, and the flood of emotions from performers who have worked their socks off to deliver a show over the course of a week. However, this was on a whole ‘nother level.
For over six months, this small group of cast and crew had worked together day in, day out, probably seeing each other more than their own family and friends. Indeed, the feeling was one of a large family saying goodbye—to each other and their characters—and going their separate ways, underscoring some the very themes of Company itself. And, for a few moments, the entire theatre felt like it was brought into that embrace. Never say never, but I’m not sure I’ll manage to catch such a powerful, emotional night of live theatre again. And Stephen Sondheim was in the audience so that’s one item on the bucket list accomplished.
The next day it was back to Paddington Station for the return trip to reality. But rather than venturing underground again, we decided to walk the route. Without any time pressure, we were able to meander through the quiet neighbourhoods, most of which were sleeping late on a Sunday. The constantly changing architecture, quirky shops, and urban parks are seldom seen by visitors when travelling from landmark to landmark on the Tube, but every street had some hidden gem or interesting detail worth ferreting out.
There is the historic Grosvenor Square in the heart of Mayfair that has a centuries-old connection to America and which is now home to a memorial to the British victims of 9/11 and statue of President Franklin Roosevelt. Or the classical frontage of the church of St. George that would not seem out of place on a Roman temple. Or maybe the unexpected oasis near Paddington itself—the houses of Bathurst Mews don’t have gardens, but the residents have turned the street into their own private green space. I found the Animals in War memorial particularly moving, dedicated to all of the animals—horses, mules, donkeys, elephants, camels, dogs, pigeons, and more—who were pressed into service during both World Wars and beyond. The poignant inscription simply reads: “They had no choice.”
As for me, I count myself fortunate that I did have the choice and opportunity to make this trip to one of the world’s great cities and, rather than being tired of it, I am already looking forward to the next visit.